EU gives Theresa May two-week Brexit reprieve

Vidya Ram London | Updated on March 22, 2019

Theresa May, Britain's Prime Minister. File photo   -  Reuters

March 29 deadline pushed to April 12 to enable PM to come up with alternative plan

Brexit is to be delayed till April 12 at the earliest, after European leaders agreed to a modified version of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request that they delay Brexit.

Now, if May’s withdrawal deal is passed by MPs next week, then Brexit will be delayed till May 22 — the day before European Parliamentary elections are set to take place.

If it fails, the United Kingdom (UK) will be given time till April 12, two weeks after the date the UK had been set to leave the European Union (EU), to come up with a plan forward, the European Council said following a meeting in Brussels late on Thursday.

“What this means in practice is that, until that date, all options will remain open, and the cliff-edge will be delayed,” said European Council President Donald Tusk, adding that Britain still had the choice between a deal, no-deal, a long extension, or revoking Article 50.

The European Commission plan – which differs considerably from May’s original request to delay Brexit till June 30 if her deal were passed – throws new uncertainty at Brexit, even as its date has been pushed back.

May had been planning to bring her meaningful vote back to MPs next week, with the deadline of March 29 looming and the prospect of crashing out without a deal.

Little clarity on vote

However, with the government still struggling to get a majority of MPs to back her deal – particularly after remarks blaming Parliament for the mess have backfired – it is yet unclear when precisely the vote will take place.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Kwasi Kwarteng, a junior minister within the Brexit department, initially declined to put a precise date forward before acknowledging it is likely to take place next week.

As a result of the European Council decision, the government will also table the necessary legislation to move the date of Brexit.

The developments – and the potential breathing room opened up by the European Council’s decision – are also piling pressure on the government to hold a series of indicative votes for parliamentarians to be able to identify the issues they wish to pursue should the deal be rejected next week.

“If the meaningful vote does not get through, we will have to look at alternatives,” acknowledged Kwarteng.

There were “three choices facing the House: accepting the deal, no deal or revoking Article 50,” he said. However, if indicative votes were to take place, they would likely be free votes, he said.

A cross-party group of MPs, including Britain’s former Attorney General for England and Wales Dominic Grieve, and Hilary Benn (a former Labour minister) are planning to table an amendment next week to give the House of Commons the power to identify alternative ways forward to find one that a majority of MPs could rally around. They are fearful that even with the delay, the government could continue with the same strategy regardless.

“Very worried the Prime Minister still wants her delay or no deal and will run down the clock again till we end up with no deal chaos on 12 April,” said Labour MP Yvette Cooper.

“If the Prime Minister’s deal isn’t passed, the government must set out a plan to prevent no deal on 12 April, taking account of indicative votes.”

Public pressure

Public pressure has been growing this week, amid little signs of progress and willingness to compromise by the government.

A march for another referendum – “The People’s Vote” – is due to take place on Saturday in central London, while a petition calling for Article 50 to be revoked has gained over 3.2 million signatories. The government has insisted that it would be wrong to cancel Brexit – despite the public campaign – as it would undermine public trust in politics.

Published on March 22, 2019

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