Brexit: Long extension may be next as May runs out of road

Delay request from UK would necessitate a commitment to contest European elections

False, faint hopes in Brussels of Theresa May snatching victory from the jaws of defeat were quickly dissipated yesterday by the House of Commons' Brexit vote.

Within minutes, European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted that he would convene an emergency summit for April 10th, an acknowledgment that the withdrawal agreement is now, to all intents and purposes, dead.

The UK will remain a member state until at least then, but the European Commission, "regretting the negative vote", warned again that a "no-deal scenario on April 12th is now a likely scenario".

The commission's most senior official, Martin Selmayr, tweeted: "12 April is now the new 29 March", in reference to yesterday's original date for the UK to leave the EU.


The commission bluntly told those who still imagine that the UK could still benefit from some kind of soft landing and transition arrangements that these are out of the question.

“The benefits of the withdrawal agreement, including a transition period, will in no circumstances be replicated in a no-deal scenario. Sectoral mini-deals are not an option,” a statement from the commission said.

The expectation here – a presumption, clearly, on the part of Mr Tusk – is that Mrs May will come to Brussels with a request for a long extension and a new "persuasive" justification for such an extension.

Not automatic

A senior EU official at the end of last week’s summit made clear that approval for such an extension would not be automatic. He said that three possible acceptable justifications had been mentioned by leaders in their discussion: the calling of a general election, of a referendum, or “some sort of a plan for a political process that can lead to a workable majority in the UK for a deal”.

Speaking in the European Parliament on Monday, however, Mr Tusk was encouraging MEPs not to reject the idea of a long extension out of hand. In an emotional speech, he asked them to think of their responsibilities to those in the UK who still believe in membership.

“You should be open to a long extension, if the UK wishes to rethink its strategy. Six million people signed the petition, one million marched. They may not feel sufficiently represented by UK parliament but they must feel represented by you. Because they are Europeans.”

Those words “if the UK wishes to rethink its strategy” are crucial, putting it up to Mrs May that an extension will not be available for more of the same.

With the request for a long extension must also come a commitment by the UK to contest the forthcoming European Parliament scheduled for May 23rd.

Legal jeopardy

The leaders at last week’s summit made clear that this was not optional were the UK still a member, warning that failure by it to take part could legally jeopardise all of the next parliament’s legislative acts. It would also certainly precipitate legal action by EU citizens in the UK if deprived of a vote.

The leader of the Greens (EFA) in the parliament, Philippe Lamberts, warned that British MPs were heading for a no-deal unless they could agree on something positive. "Should they remain unable or unwilling to do so, they should do the sensible thing: put the decision back to the people and allow a second referendum."

Earlier yesterday a spokesman for the commission made clear that the idea yesterday of severing the votes on the withdrawal agreement from those on the political declaration on the future relationship would not have been problematic for the EU. He said a vote approving the withdrawal agreement was “necessary and sufficient” to allow transition and for an orderly Brexit to happen.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times