British Prime Minister Theresa May will ask the EU’s 27 members for a short extension on the original Brexit deadline of March 29 to June 30, because politicians have so far rejected her withdrawal agreement proposals.
But the EU on Wednesday raised the stakes in the UK’s political crisis.
Donald Tusk, European Council president, told British MPs to either back withdrawal plans negotiated by May with the EU or leave without a deal – something economists say would be disastrous.
His intervention came after May was forced to formally seek an extension of the Article 50 process that set the UK’s original departure date as she prepared for the crunch meeting at the EU summit, held by the European Council.
European leaders will demand to know how May intends to use the extension to find a way out of the Brexit impasse.
France has indicated that it will block May’s request if she is unable to offer a credible way forward.
However, analysts suggest that far from increasing the prospect of a “no-deal” exit, Tusk’s ultimatum could strengthen May’s hand – as well as that of campaigners demanding a second referendum which they hope will reverse Brexit.
A large march planned in London on Saturday by the People’s Vote campaign that has been lobbying for a plebiscite will pile pressure on MPs who have so far rejected May’s departure deal twice but are watching public opinion closely.
Request for ‘short delay’
Tusk’s comments came after May formally wrote to him requesting a “short delay” to the Brexit departure date.
She has failed twice to gain support for a deal she negotiated with Brussels about the terms of Britain’s departure and future relationship with the EU, not least because of fierce opposition to it within her own Conservative Party – but still has a week to put this to MPs a third time.
On Wednesday evening, she addressed the nation and reiterated her position.
We have to question her primary motive here: it seems to be securing Brexit while at the same time holding her own party together.
While May wants an extension until the end of June, EU leaders do not want the delay to go beyond May 23 if the UK is to avoid having to participate in forthcoming European Parliament elections.
Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University London, said that while Tusk’s move appears to indicate a binary choice now facing MPs to either back May’s deal in order to secure an Article 50 extension or risk a “no deal” Brexit, it could help her in the arduous task of building support for her deal.
“It will concentrate minds,” said Bale. “Many MPs on both sides of the house are very worried about no deal even if in reality something could be done to prevent that. So I would have thought that many MPs who have so far resisted will come into line.
“I think it has always been the likeliest outcome that she will be able to squeeze Tory Eurosceptic and some Labour leavers into voting for her deal.
“It might be a close run thing but it is perfectly possible despite the very heavy defeats she has already suffered that she could squeeze this through.”
If, however, MPs were to reject May’s deal on the third attempt in the face of Tusk’s ultimatum, it is likely that an emergency EU summit will be called.
Under that scenario, Brussels insiders believe the UK government would then request a long extension – something champions of Brexit want to avoid at all costs – to allow time for cross-party talks on a “soft Brexit” that can gain a consensus in parliament or a general election.
Moreover, Tusk’s comments could also empower campaigners seeking another referendum.
A proposal by Labour MPs Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson appears to achieve the rare feat of potentially satisfying all sides in this divisive debate – by ensuring backing for May’s deal on condition that a referendum is then held.
“I think that Kyle-Wilson amendment may well now be brought forward officially by the Labour Party,” said Bale, “which in some ways would allow her deal to go through quite easily, but there would then have to be a confirmatory referendum on it.”
The EU would be likely to respond by then offering a more lengthy Article 50 extension that would accommodate a referendum – with some polls now appearing to suggest that a small majority could vote to halt Brexit entirely.
Bale noted that while there has been much discussion about plans for a referendum taking a prohibitive length of time to organise, it could be achieved in a relatively short period.
“If parliament and the government wanted to, they could certainly hold a referendum in a few weeks.”
Speculation has also grown that May may also use a threat to resign – almost certainly triggering a general election – to bring recalcitrant Conservative MPs into line in the third vote on her withdrawal deal.
She has been heavily criticised by opposition MPs for choosing to seek a short extension of the Article 50 timetable in order to placate Brexit hardliners in her own party.
David Phinnemore, professor of European politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said that May’s decision reflected the pressure she has come under from Conservative MPs.
“She has obviously had to swallow earlier statements that she has repeatedly made that the UK will leave on March 30 this year,” he said.
“But obviously she has equally been committed to ensure that the UK leaves with a deal and so I think she has just had to face reality and go for the extension, albeit very reluctantly.
“We have to question her primary motive here: it seems to be securing Brexit while at the same time holding her own party together.”