Brexit: Agony prolonged?

by Jay Turner | 11th April 2019

Three weeks ago, Prime Minister Theresa May stood up in the House of Commons and told MPs that she ‘wouldn’t tolerate any Brexit delay beyond 30th June.’ Yesterday she went to a specially convened EU Council summit to pitch for an extension to that date but after more than five hours of talks, EU leaders agreed to grant the UK an extension until 31st October. So what happened and where do we go from here?

Extension granted

In a marked departure from the norm, yesterday’s summit was notable for the fact that France and Germany had not agreed a common position in advance. French President Emmanuel Macron was pushing for a shorter extension to allow the EU to focus its attention on more important issues than a departing member. In contrast German Chancellor Angela Merkel felt that as the first-ever departing member from the EU, the UK should be given time and space to exit in an orderly fashion. For his part European Council Donald Tusk continues to see a long extension as a way of the UK potentially remaining a member of the EU, via a confirmatory referendum or decision to revoke Article 50. Other EU leaders also favoured a year or more – not least because of the prospect of a ‘no deal’ exit just before the European parliamentary elections in May. Extending the deadline by six months is therefore a classic EU compromise.

The extension has been granted to allow UK politicians time to come to a consensus on a way forward. It has been termed a ‘flextension’ because if the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified at any time before 31st October then the extension will be terminated, and the UK will exit the EU. At the other end of the spectrum, the UK retains the possibility during this period to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether. In practice the extra time is likely to result in a much softer form of Brexit, possibly involving a Customs Union. We do not rule out the prospect of a confirmatory referendum on any deal as part of a consensus proposal, if one transpires during the extension.

During questions at a late-night press conference following the conclusion of the talks, Theresa May refused to apologise for the UK’s failure to leave the EU on its original departure date. Instead she continued to point the finger of blame at MPs back home, saying: “If sufficient members of Parliament had voted with me in January we would already be out of the European Union.” Politicians in Westminster will disagree of course, but Number 10 still think that the public have sympathy with the Prime Minister’s viewpoint on this.

Prepare for European elections

One of the most significant political impacts of the extension is that the UK will now take part in the forthcoming European Parliament elections, unless a Brexit deal passes by 22 May. As European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker remarked last night: “that might seem a bit odd, but rules are rules”. Few in the UK or the EU relish this prospect, not least the Conservative Party who are likely to be heavily punished for failing to deliver Brexit almost three years after the referendum. The elections are highly unpredictable and could see a polarised electorate turn to pro-Remain parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Change UK on the one hand, and strong advocates of an immediate Brexit such as UKIP and the Brexit Party on the other, at the expense of the established parties.

The UK’s participation in the elections could also cause issues for the EU, not least by impacting the selection of the next European Commission President. Under the ‘Spitzenkandidaten’ process European political parties appoint lead candidates for the role of Commission President and the UK’s cohort of fresh MEPs will affect the majority ratio in the chamber, with the centre-left Party of European Socialists likely to benefit at the expense of the centre-right European People’s Party.

Good behaviour?

At the start of the week leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested if there were to be an extension, then the UK should become the “most difficult member possible”, suggesting for example that the UK could veto the next seven-year EU budget. Going into the summit French President Emmanuel Macron made it known he favoured a form of ‘good behaviour’ clause to prevent this from happening. In the end the summit conclusions simply state that the UK should ‘act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension.’ Regardless of this the possibilities for the UK to block decisions are limited as most resolutions today are dealt with by qualified majority voting.

What happens next?

With the extension now granted attention will move back to Westminster for MPs to try and agree a way forward. Announcing the extension, European Council President Donald Tusk urged the UK: “Please do not waste this time.” EU leaders made clear last night that the Withdrawal Agreement itself will not be reopened and so consensus will have to centre on revising the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship. At this point we do not see signs of a breakthrough in the talks between the Conservatives and Labour, and the Prime Minister herself conceded that in her post-summit remarks, saying: “I do not pretend the next few weeks will be easy, or there is a simple way to break the deadlock in Parliament.”   However, the fact that neither side will want to be blamed for collapsing the talks will keep them going for now.

Owing to this lack of consensus the existing deal will not be brought back to the Commons for another ‘Meaningful Vote’ for the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, Theresa May remains hopeful of getting a Brexit deal through Parliament by 22 May, thus avoiding the need for the UK to participate in the European elections. The Prime Minister may feel that the prospect of taking part in the European elections may finally bring reluctant MPs on board, but this may be more in hope than expectation.

The Prime Minister will make a statement to the House of Commons around lunchtime today and inevitably she will attempt to put a positive spin on what was clearly another night of humiliation in Brussels. Unlike yesterday’s unusually domestic-focused Prime Minister’s Questions session, Theresa May can expect a full Brexit interrogation when she updates MPs. Particular anger will come from her own benches where many Brexiteers are enraged both by the extension and by May’s insistence that she will stay as leader through ‘phase one’ until a deal passes. These Conservative MPs are likely to use the coming weeks to try and force Theresa May to step down, although this remains difficult following their failed coup attempt at the end of last year.

Following today’s Brexit debate Parliament will break up for its Easter break until 23 April, although we expect the cross-party talks to continue through this period.

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Jay Turner

Jay is an experienced political campaigner helping clients tell their story to political audiences, and supporting them through parliamentary inquiries, regulatory threats, and reputational challenges.

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