The United Kingdom will remain in the EU — for now, at least.
EU leaders, acting on a request from Prime Minister Theresa May, once again postponed the deadline by which the UK would be ejected from the bloc without the protection of a negotiated Withdrawal Agreement, this time setting the date for October 31.
Crucially, however, they granted Britain the flexibility to leave earlier — essentially as soon as the UK government can reach a deal among its own warring factions, and parliament ratifies the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s the 585-page treaty securing protections for citizens’ rights, a financial settlement, and the insurance policy for the Ireland border known as “the backstop.”
The delay of this Friday’s deadline — itself a postponement from the original date of March 29 — averts a potentially catastrophic no-deal departure that both sides had increasingly feared as a path toward mutual disaster.
The decision was reached after a more arduous, and longer than expected debate among EU27 leaders at a summit in Brussels that began Wednesday evening and stretched until 2 a.m. Thursday. While the leaders had agreed ahead of time that an extension was necessary, President Emmanuel Macron made a fierce argument for only a short postponement, effectively siding with May who had requested a delay until June 30.
“This means an additional six months for the U.K.” — Donald Tusk, European Council president
Heavily outnumbered by other leaders, including Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, Macron eventually relented. But he succeeded in reducing the extension to nearly half of the year-long delay that EU officials had envisioned going into their meeting.
“This means an additional six months for the UK,” European Council President Donald Tusk declared at a closing news conference. “During this time, the course of action will be entirely in the UK’s hands. It can still ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, in which case the extension will be terminated. It can also reconsider the whole Brexit strategy. That might lead to changes in the Political Declaration [setting out the future relationship], but not in the Withdrawal Agreement. Until the end of this period, the UK, will also have the possibility to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether.”
our British friends … please do not waste this time
Tusk closed with a plea to “our British friends … please do not waste this time.”
For the UK, the reprieve carries a potentially steep political price: Unless May pulls together a deal quickly, Britain must participate in next month’s European Parliament election. That sets the stage for a dramatic vote on May 23 that will serve as an electoral lightning rod for the highly-charged emotions that have divided the country since the June 2016 referendum.
That immediately amps up pressure on May to reach an accord with the opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn. But Corbyn no longer faces the short-term threat of being blamed for a no-deal outcome, and may now be emboldened to torpedo the negotiations and press instead a new national election. Already, he has accused May of refusing to budge from the government’s red lines.
May blames MPs
Asked at a 2.44 a.m. news conference whether she thought she should apologise for again disappointing those who wanted the UK out of the EU as soon as possible, May put the blame firmly on parliament.
“Over the last three months I have voted three times to leave the European Union,” she said, barely attempting to hide her exasperation.
Rolling her eyes, she added: “If sufficient members of parliament had voted with me in January we would already be out of the European Union. We haven’t been able to get that majority in parliament.” She would work for that majority across party lines, she said, so that the UK could leave “as soon as possible.”
“That’s what I’m going to continue to work for,” May said.
While averting a crash-out, the delay may offer little solace to thousands of businesses and millions of citizens on edge about what Brexit will mean for their lives and livelihoods. Until there is agreement in Westminster, a no-deal scenario will remain a very real possibility down the line.
For the EU, the extension was the choice of a lesser evil. Brexit will continue to pose a major distraction, and cast a shadow over the upcoming European Parliament election and the subsequent negotiations to form a new Commission and appoint a new roster of leaders. At the same time, it keeps alive the hope among some in the EU that Brexit will be undone and a UK departure will never come to pass.
Macron surprised many of his fellow leaders with the ferocity of his arguments. He was second to last to speak in the traditional tour de table and officials said that many leaders believed Macron intended to veto any extension that went beyond May’s request of June 30, such was the vehemence of his speech.
Macron bats for Brexiteers
After the meeting, Macron insisted that he had not backtracked but rather stuck to his principles and that he was also defending the democratic choice of British voters to leave the EU.
“The majority position was rather to give a very long extension but in my view it wasn’t logical and above all it was neither good for us nor for the British people,” he said.
“There were temptations to go very far in granting deadlines, and in my view it wasn’t about respecting the vote of the British people but rather to get them locked into membership,” Macron said.
That amounted to a stunning accusation of double-dealing by some of his fellow EU leaders who insisted that they were doing everything in their power to leave Britain in charge of its own fate. But it also reflected Macron’s own view of himself as a crusader for ambitious EU reforms that so far have failed to gain much traction and will not be helped by Britain’s lingering membership.
The final result was a classic EU compromise. A Halloween end date for a process that for many in the EU has become an increasingly terrifying horror show. The date also coincides with the end of the Juncker Commission’s mandate, meaning a fresh start for the EU’s new leadership.
May has said she intends for Britain to leave long before that date. Officials in Brussels who have watched the UK miss every Brexit deadline on offer said they will believe it when they see it.
It was clear that Merkel had emerged as a driving force to prevent a disorderly, no-deal departure by the UK and that she had been instrumental in countering Macron’s push for a much shorter extension.
“I think that also what she’s attempting is proper and correct, but she does not yet have a big ace up her sleeve, in my assessment” — Sebastian Kurz, Austrian chancellor
“We want an orderly exit, and that can be ensured by allowing for some more time,” Merkel said at the end of the long night’s proceedings. “For me it was clear that we, that Germany, would fight for an orderly exit — not because of British demands but for our own interest.”
EU leaders had also sought reassurances from May that Britain would continue to act in good faith, and not seek to sabotage any of the bloc’s decision-making in Brexit’s extra time. The decision by the EU27 leaders also included a provision mandating that the bloc “review progress” at its regular summit in June. Officials said that meant an informational update and not that leaders would take any new decision or that the UK might face any new deadline or mandate.
Despite taking the immediate heat out of Brexit, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz was among the leaders who said they could not predict how the process would now play out.
“Theresa May very clearly once again described how her plan looks, what plan she’s pursuing,” Kurz told reporters. “I think that also what she’s attempting is proper and correct, but she does not yet have a big ace up her sleeve, in my assessment.”
” I never wanted to agree to the October delay”
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Theresa May said she “never wanted” to agree a potential delay to Brexit until October and appealed to MPs to pass a deal before May 22 to ensure the UK does not have to take part in the European election.
Speaking in the House of Commons hours after accepting the European Council’s proposal of an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period until October 31, the May emphasised that the extension could be terminated whenever her Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.
“In short, the date of our departure from the EU — and our participation in the European parliamentary elections — remains a decision for this house,” she told MPs. “As President Tusk said last night: ‘During this time, the course of action will be entirely in the UK’s hands.'”
However, she faced renewed calls to resign immediately from one of her own MPs, veteran Brexiteer Bill Cash, who called the extension an “abject surrender.” Asked if she would quit, May replied: “I think you know the answer to that.”
May has pledged to leave office only when her Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.
Irish have the last say
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, confirmed on Twitter that the deal consists of a “flextension” to October 31. Followers preferred the phrase ‘feckstension’. “As a Thaoiseach, I’m sure you won’t mind me surmising that ‘flextension’ is a domestication of the concept ‘for feck sake, another extension’”
And we’re done. (1) Flextension to Oct 31st (2) We’ll take stock of situation at our regular summit in June (3) UK to take part in @Europarl_EN election or must leave on June 1st without a deal.
Good night !
— Leo Varadkar (@LeoVaradkar) April 11, 2019
Source: Politico, with Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer, Jack Blanchard, Eline Schaart, Paul Taylor and Zia Weise contributed reporting, Twitter