Britain won’t be leaving the EU on April 12, after Britain and the EU agreed to an extension till the end of October – with the option of Britain leaving earlier if a deal were agreed to in Parliament before then. The period is longer than the extension till June 30 that Prime Minister Theresa May had sought but is shorter than some of the possible dates that had been considered – including a possible delay of a year. Leaders made clear that the onus was very much on Britain to find a solution and deliver within this period. “Our message to our British friend is: this extension…is still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time,” said Donald Tusk, President of the European Council. It followed a lengthy meeting of the leaders of the remaining 27 EU nations, which took place after Mrs. May made a presentation in which she urged them to provide Britain with more time, highlighting the ongoing talks between the government and the opposition Labour party in an effort to find a road forward that can command a majority in the House of Commons.
Mrs May welcomed the extension and in particular the European Council’s acceptance that the extension should be flexible – enabling Britain to leave the EU on June 1 and avoid taking place in European Parliamentary elections on May 23, should an agreement be reached before May 22. “We must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest. I do not pretend the next few weeks will be easy or that there is a simple way to break the deadlock in Parliament,” she said following the announcement of the agreement.
The date represents a compromise solution thrashed out by EU leaders – between the shorter extension sought by an increasingly frustrated French President Emmanuel Macron and a pragmatic German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who had sought an extension by up to a year.
“I think we delivered the best possible compromise….we preserved the well-functioning of the EU,” Mr. Macron said in a press conference following the meeting, describing the extension as a “good solution.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said they wished to see an orderly withdrawal of Britain from the EU that would be “best assured by ensuring more time.” Such an exit was in Germany’s own interest, she said.
The choice of October 31 is significant being the day before Jean Claude Juncker, the European Commission president and fellow commissioners steps down, thus enabling the UK to exit before the new commissioners are in place. Had an extension longer than this been sought there would have been questions around whether or not Britain would get to have a British European Commissioner (currently each country has one, with the role of president and vice president rotating between countries).
Mr. Juncker himself, however, indicated that he anticipated the UK taking part in European Parliamentary elections on May 23, which he said might seem a “bit odd, but rules are rules.” He urged the UK to respect its obligations towards the EU and reminded the UK that the withdrawal agreement would not be up for negotiation that was reached months ago. “we don’t want it to be called into question,” he said, in a clear reference to ongoing efforts by some within the Conservative Party and their allies in the Democratic Unionist Party to attempt to revisit the controversial backstop arrangements that are designed to prevent a hard border developing on the island of Ireland should talks on future relations break down. The British government and Labour Party have been engaged in talks centering on one part of the wider withdrawal agreement – the political declaration on future relations. The government has made clear that the legal text of the treaty itself is not part of those negotiations. However, while the government has insisted it is willing to compromise on the declaration and that there were no red lines, the Labour party has repeatedly insisted that the government has not really been willing to give ground – a concern clearly shared by EU leaders, some of whom indicated that it was possible that the October 31 date would be one that would have to be revisited in the future.
Meanwhile, opposition to both the extension and talks with Labour has continued to build within the Conservative Party. Earlier this week, 177 Conservative MPs voted against Mrs. May’s deal, while some looked for options to oust May early. However, there ability to do this is limited because Mrs May won a party no confidence vote last year, which means that this process can’t take place again till mid-December this year. Mrs May has already said she will stand down before the next phase of Brexit negotiations, but with no agreement on the current phase in site, when she will do so is an open-ended question.