EU leaders have deftly wiped their fingerprints from threat of a no-deal
Brexiteers will face stark choice between backing May’s deal and risking European elections
Theresa May pleaded her case for a three-month delay to Brexit before other EU leaders for almost two hours in Brussels on Thursday night. But after she left the room in the Europa building, the other 27 leaders spent more than five hours working out the terms of an extension to the article 50 deadline.
By 11pm, the leaders had gone through multiple drafts, changing dates and conditions for departure. They appeared to settle on a formula that would give Britain an unconditional extension until April 12th, just two weeks after the statutory exit date of March 29th.
But if parliament approves Mrs May’s Brexit deal next week, Britain would be able to remain in the EU until May 22nd. If MPs fail to back the deal next week, the prime minister could seek to negotiate an extension to the April 12th deadline – but only if she agreed to hold European Parliament elections on May 23rd.
Even before her ill-judged statement from 10 Downing Street on Wednesday when she blamed MPs for having to postpone Brexit, her deal looked unlikely to win a majority next week. But Brexiteers will face a stark choice between backing Mrs May’s deal next week and risking parliament instructing the government to hold European Parliament elections and seek a longer extension.
Speaker John Bercow’s ruling that the prime minister cannot continue to bring the same proposition back to the Commons means that she may have only one more chance to put her deal to the vote.
By offering an unconditional extension until April 12th, EU leaders would move the no-deal Brexit cliff edge by three weeks but keep the pressure on MPs to back the prime minister’s deal next week.
Earlier on Thursday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr.
Mr Corbyn said he did not believe Mrs May’s deal was the right way forward but that his proposal for a softer Brexit, including full customs union membership, could command a majority.
“We think that what we’re proposing can be achieved in the British parliament; we do believe we can construct a majority that will prevent the crashing out and all the chaos that will come from crashing out and that’s what we’re absolutely focused on,” he said.
Among the difficulties Mrs May has faced in attempting to win parliamentary approval for her deal is the fact that various factions of MPs remain confident that they can secure their preferred option for Brexit. The House of Commons has already shown that there is a majority against a no-deal Brexit, so Brexiteers have an incentive to vote for the prime minister’s deal rather than risk a long delay or a softer Brexit.
Advocates of a second referendum have withheld support until now for a softer version of Brexit but they could be faced with a choice between Mrs May’s deal and something like Labour’s formula of a customs union and close alignment with the single market.
The EU leaders have deftly wiped their fingerprints from the threat of a no-deal Brexit but they have left Mrs May and British MPs with a series of unpalatable and potentially perilous choices. And as the British prime minister sat in a delegation room while 27 other EU leaders determined her options for Brexit, her country’s national humiliation was laid bare as never before.