Manufacturers of Brexit commemorative items may be counting the cost if “March 29 2019” appears on their mugs and tea towels. It now seems impossible to imagine that the United Kingdom will be leaving the European Union on that day.
UK MPs are set to have a further vote before March 12 to approve the texts of the withdrawal agreement and political declaration – with whatever alterations the EU and UK have agreed – but the original deadline just isn’t feasible. Even an approved deal will need to be implemented in UK law. It is the need to give parliament time to scrutinise the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill that will require the government to seek the unanimous consent of the EU member states to extend the Article 50 negotiations.
A short “technical” extension of this kind is unlikely to give rise to much resistance on the EU side. The only real difficulty with a short extension is if it runs into the elections to the European parliament at the end of May. A bill of around 100 pages implementing key aspects of the withdrawal agreement – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish “backstop” – requires proper scrutiny.
It will also become the focal point for amendments for those pushing for a referendum on the deal. Some will try to amend the bill to demand this, possibly with an alternative option of remaining in the EU on the ballot. Others might seek to amend it to enhance parliament’s role on anything from extending the transition period to ending the backstop. But in principle, legislation could be in place within a matter of months and “exit day” amended accordingly.
A longer extension
Far more difficult to predict is what will happen if MPs again fail to approve the texts negotiated between the EU and the UK. The prime minister has promised to allow MPs a vote on a motion on March 13 that would allow them to reject the option of leaving the EU without a deal. That could mean MPs voting on March 12 to reject a deal and then the next day voting also to reject a no-deal Brexit. In this scenario, the only way of avoiding a no-deal Brexit on March 29 – other than taking steps to revoke the Article 50 withdrawal notification – would be to request an extension to the Article 50 negotiations. Without such an extension, the UK would automatically cease to be a member state on that date.
This is where the Cooper amendment, passed in the Commons on February 27 comes into play. This requires the government to bring forward on March 14 a motion to request a “short extension” to the Article 50 negotiations. But, as Hussein Kassim highlights, it is not enough just for MPs to decide that the negotiations need more time. The 27 EU states need to agree to the request, and they will want to know why the extension is needed. However, it may not be obvious what the UK would plan to do with the extra time. However, there are three plausible reasons why the UK might seek more time.
The first is a belief that with one more heave – and with another round of tweaks – the votes might stack up in favour of approving a version of the deal currently on the table. In reality this would only push back a cliff-edge no-deal Brexit by a matter of months. It is difficult to see what new compromise could be achieved in that time that would not be better offered now in order to close this phase of the process and allow negotiations on the future relationship to get underway.
The second reason for seeking an extension would be to allow another referendum to be held. Movement towards a further referendum was apparently boosted when the Labour leadership indicated it would support such a proposal. Nonetheless, and despite indications that Labour would use the party whip to back support for a referendum, it is not evident that there is a majority in the House of Commons to put the issue back to the public. In these circumstances, an extension of the Article 50 timeframe would need to be nine to 12 months to allow legislation to be passed and for the referendum to be conducted.
The third scenario would recognise that a failure to secure parliamentary approval for a deal would be an enormous political failure by the government. If a government cannot command a majority in the Commons for the central plank of its Brexit policy, how could it credibly continue? Although leaders of EU states would no doubt be sympathetic to an extension for an election, they would be worried by the risk that it might create further political irresolution. After all, when MPs voted on February 27, they also rejected an opposition motion setting out an alternative vision of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. Despite the evident boredom with Brexit on the EU side, any extension to allow UK politics to settle sufficiently to form a consensus could be for years rather than months.
Without clarity as to where the UK wants to go with its EU relationship and no guarantee that either a referendum or an election will assist, the rationale for an extension might simply be to protect the EU’s own interests against a disorderly Brexit.
Meanwhile, the Brexit bunting and badges will remain either undated or inscribed “tbc”.