Theresa May has asked the European Union to delay Britain's departure date from the EU to June 30, with the possibility of leaving earlier. The request means it is possible that Britain will participate in European Parliament elections.
In a letter to Donald Tusk she wrote: "The government will want to agree a timetable for ratification that allows the UK to withdraw from the European Union before 23 May," but admitted that it would still have to prepare to participate in the elections. It is possible that those elected could never take their seats in Parliament.
The European Union was expecting May to put forward a process for MPs to agree on the future UK-EU relationship, senior EU officials told BuzzFeed News. The expectation was that May would have asked for — and will eventually need — a longer extension, the officials said.
Officials in Brussels believe May’s talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are unlikely to deliver a specific outcome. Instead, the prime minister will emerge with a plan for the House of Commons to debate and vote on a series of options about the shape of Britain’s future trading relationship with the bloc.
These could include a customs union and a confirmatory referendum. As a result, the exit date could be pushed to the end of December, or even as far back as March 31, 2020.
Following a long meeting between EU officials that took place yesterday to prepare for next week’s European Council summit where EU leaders will decide on the terms of an extension to Article 50 — the framework that set out the two-year window for the UK’s departure from the EU, which was initially due to end on March 29 — the president of the council, Donald Tusk, is set to ask the 27 leaders to grant the UK “a long but flexible extension”.
A senior EU official quoted Tusk saying: “The only reasonable way out would be a long but flexible extension. I would call it a 'flextension'. How would it work in practice? We could give the UK a year-long extension, automatically terminated once the Withdrawal Agreement has been accepted and ratified by the House of Commons.”
The EU official added: “And even if this were not possible, then the UK would still have enough time to rethink its Brexit strategy. Short extension if possible and a long one if necessary. It seems to be a good scenario for both sides, as it gives the UK all the necessary flexibility, while avoiding the need to meet every few weeks to further discuss Brexit extensions.”
The concept of a flexible extension was first reported by the BBC.
Commenting on May’s letter, an EU source said: “Tusk’s ‘flextension’ is absolutely compatible with the logic of PM May’s request. UK can leave whenever ready to leave. But EU also has to protect interests of the EU, citizens and business by avoiding repeated/continuous cliff edges and emergency summits to extend Art. 50 further."
European government officials caution that things could change between now and next week because of the volatile political situation in London and differing views among EU leaders.
The decision on whether to grant a long extension and its terms will ultimately be one for the 27 leaders when they meet in Brussels on April 10. However, in the lead-up to next week’s summit, the governments of some member states, including France, have adopted a tougher stance than others on the prospect of granting the UK a long extension to simply keep debating its options, an EU27 leader told BuzzFeed News.
These leaders want any long extension to Article 50 to be coupled with a clear purpose, and for the withdrawal agreement, which cannot be renegotiated, to be approved by the Commons.
A source close to French president Emmanuel Macron told Reuters on Friday that talks of granting Britain another extension were premature.
May and Corbyn, as well as Number 10 and Labour officials, have been locked in talks since Wednesday to find a way out of the impasse the country finds itself in after the prime minister's Brexit deal was rejected by Parliament on three occasions.
The two sides have described the talks as “constructive” and “productive”.
Any process the prime minister and the leader of the opposition agree to, short of the Brexit deal being approved by MPs this coming week, would be followed by a UK request to extend Article 50 by an additional 9 or 12 months in order to give MPs enough time to come to a decision, explained another EU source, pushing the exit date to the end of December or as far back as March 31, 2020.
In such a scenario, the EU officials, who have been in contact with European capitals and UK counterparts, expect a resolution, possibly including the referendum, by the end of this year.
UK and EU negotiators would also have to work to amend the political declaration that outlines the future relationship, and time would be needed to ratify the agreements.
Under the EU’s current thinking, the extension can be terminated early once the UK has ratified the withdrawal agreement — the legally binding terms of Britain's departure from the EU.
However, the UK will have to hold European Parliament elections because there is little chance of MPs ratifying the Brexit deal before May 22, said a senior EU official.
Outlining the flexible extension, a senior official said: “[It] would of course require holding European Parliament elections.”
When EU leaders met at a European Council summit meeting last month, the 27 heads of state and government agreed to extend Article 50 until May 22 on the condition that MPs approved the withdrawal agreement. If they don't approve it, the UK has until next week to put forward another plan or face crashing out without a deal on April 12.
If, as expected, the deal doesn’t go through in the next few days, and the UK does eventually ask for a longer extension before the April deadline, Britain will have to hold the elections in May. The cutoff date for setting the vote is April 11.
Any extension has then to be agreed unanimously by the EU’s 27 remaining member states.
The 27 leaders are unlikely to grant a short delay to the Brexit process unless British MPs approve the deal before next week’s meeting, and are not keen on the idea of multiple extensions. In effect they have left May with two options: no deal or ask for a long extension.
Any attempt by the prime minister to agree a customs union with Corbyn is likely to anger her MPs — and would not be certain to pass in Parliament. Only 36 Conservative MPs voted in favour of the arrangement in an indicative vote this week, while 236 opposed the measure.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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