Thursday 20 June 2019

John Downing: 'Extending the Brexit deadline will only work if UK has a plan'


A pro-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: Getty Images
A pro-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, London. Photo: Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

We could not be accused of undue cynicism for saying the Brexit deadline will be extended beyond March 29.

How do we know? Well, Theresa May has formally denied any such idea.

There is plenty of form to support such a conclusion. It is very clear that a slowing down of things does arguably have the virtue of maybe staving off economic calamity.

It is also, however, also worth bearing a few simple things in mind about the idea of an extension to the Brexit deadline beyond 11pm Dublin time on Friday, March 29, next. There is provision for it in the scant Article 50 procedure as set out in the 2009 EU Lisbon Treaty - but it requires the UK to specifically seek it and all 27 other EU member states to unanimously approve.

There is a further complication in that European Parliament elections are scheduled for a day of each governments' choosing between Thursday, May 23, and Sunday, May 26, this year. These elections go ahead on the assumption the UK is leaving, with its 73 MEP seats either redistributed among the other states (where Ireland gets two more), or held back for future new member states. So, any extension beyond a few weeks would require hashing out a way around that complication. Of itself, that election issue can be got over, but it drives home a simpler point: the other EU member states - and possibly also the European Parliament - would need convincing that an extension would achieve something beyond postponing the inevitable.

Another Brexit referendum in the UK would be one good reason for delay. The prospect of a still unlikely change of heart among UK MPs about ratifying the deal might appear better again, as it would offer a prompter and perhaps a better bet.

But we can put both those prospects in the old political file labelled 'Definite Maybes'. Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney unsurprisingly gave a positive reaction to the prospect of a Brexit extension - but he was also frank about these and other obstacles in the way of such a prospect.

Officially, others in the EU were not especially positive about extension for now at least. France's Europe Minister Nathalie Loiseau warned against putting too much faith in talk of extending Article 50.

"I don't work on hypotheses - the current situation is complex enough. Let's stick to where we are now," she said.

A Brussels diplomat told Agence France-Presse: "It is clear that everyone has in mind that this possibility exists." But the diplomat also cautioned that "it is a very hypothetical option".

More immediately, things focus again on another Brexit deadline. The renewed British parliament debate begins today and the vote is likely after 7pm on Tuesday.

Unless something astonishing happens, Theresa May will lose. If we can believe the received Westminster wisdom, the redoubtable Mrs May will then begin efforts to win that vote all over again.

Irish Independent

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