After months of insisting Britain would be leaving the EU on the 29 March no matter what, Theresa May has performed a dramatic u-turn to allow a Commons vote on extending Article 50.
It is the first time the prime minister has admitted Brexit may be delayed.
In a bid to head off a rebel amendment today, May promised that if her withdrawal deal is rejected on 12 March, MPs will get the chance to vote on whether to leave with no deal. If that too is rejected, then parliament will be given the chance to vote on whether the government should seek an extension to negotiations.
Could Article 50 be easily extended?
Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, commonly known as the Lisbon Treaty, is the legal mechanism by which a member state can quit the bloc.
The European Court of Justice ruled in December that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 if it wants, effectively cancelling Brexit.
However, the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush says that, unlike revocation, extension “cannot be done by the United Kingdom alone and requires unanimity from the other 27 nations of the EU”.
In addition to May’s meaningful vote on the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, the British government also needs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law and several other pieces of key legislation into law before leaving EU.
This means that even if the prime minister pulls a rabbit out of the hat and wins next month’s crunch vote, a so-called “technical extension” of several weeks would in all likelihood still be needed.
Would the EU grant an extension?
If MPs vote to delay Article 50, May has said the government will “seek to agree that extension approved by the House with the EU, and bring forward the necessary legislation to change the exit date commensurate with that extension”.
The EU has repeatedly indicated it would grant an Article 50 extension. European Council President Donald Tusk is the latest senior Brussels official to back the idea, describing an extension as a “rational solution” to the impasse in the House of Commons.
“Both Germany and France, the EU’s two most influential member states, have signalled a willingness to extend Article 50 and delay Brexit,” reports Sky News.
Importantly, the Irish government, which has a veto on any extension as well the final deal, has said it would not “stand in the way” if the UK asked to extend the Article 50 negotiating period.
However, “plenty of EU observers believe that it would only be granted if Britain has some kind of plan to end the deadlock”, says Politico’s Jack Blanchard. “That might be a general election, or a second referendum… but you’d guess a promise to ‘keep on arguing amongst ourselves for another nine months’ might not do it,” he said.
So will it be extended and for how long?
With no majority for May’s withdrawal agreement or no deal in sight, and no sign that the EU is set to budge on the Irish backstop, an Article 50 extension is now odds on with the bookies.
Oddsmonkey spokesman Peter Watton said: “At 1/9 – the probability of Article 50 being extended is around 90% – and more money is coming for that.”
However, there is widespread debate about the length of the extension.
Addressing the Commons on Tuesday, the prime minister suggested she would ask for “as short as possible”, with many interpreting that as around three months.
Anything beyond the end of June, she said, would require the UK to take part in European Parliament elections at the end of May – something she is said to be desperate to avoid as it could see a surge for anti-EU parties such as Ukip, and Nigel Farage’s new Brexit Party.
While the EU is also keen to get Brexit over with before the European elections, it is “determined to avoid offering a short extension only to have to revisit the issue in the summer when the government again fails to win round parliament”, says The Guardian.
Instead, the newspaper says Brussels favours “replacing the 21-month transition period with extra time as a member state [which] would allow the UK and the EU to develop their plans for the future relationship with the aim of making the contentious Irish backstop redundant”.
A new poll by Politico-Hanbury shows a clear majority of voters support a short extension to Article 50 if needed to continue the Brexit negotiations and ratify the final deal.
The survey of 2,006 adults found 47% are in favour of a one-month extension if required, compared with 26% against. “But the poll also shows public support for an extension drops off significantly the longer it goes on,” says Tom McTague, with that net figure of +15% in favour dropping to just +2% for a three-month extension, then tumbling to -15% for a six-month delay and to -37% for a two-year delay.
What happens at the end of the extension?
“As Mrs May has said over and over (and over) again, a delay does not deliver a deal, just more delay. The cliff-edge will still be there in three months’ time,” says Philip Johnson in The Daily Telegraph.
Stephen Bush in the New Statesman agrees: “The big problem for MPs is that the vote they will be given on 14 March will be a vote to defer the cliff edge rather than to eliminate it.
“Whether the end of the Article 50 process is 29 March, 30 June or December 2020 when the current budget period ends, Parliament will still face the same choice: a negotiated exit, a no deal exit, or no Brexit, whether facilitated by another referendum or by a vote of MPs.”
The Telegraph’s Johnson is more pessimistic, arguing: “The reality is that, if Brexit is delayed, Brexit is finished. This is because MPs will never vote for no deal and Mrs May is promising that leaving on such terms will not now happen without their explicit approval, which means she will have to change the law since the date is enshrined in statute.”