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Brexit Update: A Breakthrough Or Delay Tactics?

The United Kingdom was almost heard collectively groaning as Minister Theresa May announced last night that her thrice-defeated Brexit deal…

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20 Mar 2019

Theresa May Formally Requests Extension to Article 50

Theresa May was forced to drop the idea of a third vote on her withdrawal agreement following the ‘rediscovery’ of a 400-year rule by the Speaker of the House, John Bercow. The historic ruling prohibits Members seeking multiple votes in the House of Commons on issues that have not been amended.

As May’s deal contains nothing more than it did when it was first voted out, she is no longer able to seek agreement to it in the House. This has led to criticisms that Theresa May has been kicking the can down the road on the issue of her withdrawal agreement since it was drafted.

This latest twist in the Brexit story has thrown the country into political crisis, with the Prime Minister confirming that she intends to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, to formally ask for a delay.

Although the British people may be tempted to think that MPs would pool their focus on sorting out some kind – indeed, ANY kind – of solution, they would be wrong. Now the arguing has turned to how LONG the extension should be, with even the Tory party completely divided on the issue.

The Unravelling of Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement

Last week the official line from No 10 was that a short extension to Article 50 – the mechanism that allows the UK to leave the EU – would be necessary to pass all the necessary legislation implementing the UK’s exit.

The Prime Minister told MPs last week that she would ask for a short extension if MPs passed her deal – a “technical” extension – or a long one if they did not.

On Monday evening, Commons Speaker John Bercow threw her strategy into disarray when he made an unexpected statement ruling out a third meaningful vote on her Brexit deal, telling MPs that the government would not be able to “resubmit the same proposition or substantially the same proposition as that which was rejected” in January and March this year, by 230 and 149 votes respectively.

How the EU Feels about an Article 50 Extension

Yesterday morning, EU leaders expressed frustration at the ongoing “unacceptable” uncertainty around Brexit and suggested any extension to Article 50 would have to be for a clear purpose.

France’s Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said an extension to Article would be pointless, while Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, said he expected “clear and precise proposals” as to why it would be seeking a delay to Brexit.

However, if EU leaders agree to scrap March 29 as exit day — a date so significant that the Treasury commissioned commemorative coins on which it would be inscribed —pressure to agree or reject the prime minister’s deal will all-but disappear.

Delay to Article 50 will prolong the Agony

That matters because alternatives that have up until now looked impossible because there was not enough time — such as a general election, a move to force Theresa May out as prime minister or a substantial renegotiation of the Political Declaration based on new red lines — come back into the frame as credible options.

In essence, a delay means that Downing Street’s tactic of using the impending Brexit date as leverage with MPs disappears overnight.

“Once an extension is agreed, it is binding in international law,” explained one senior UK government official who said this fact was being largely overlooked in parliament. “Once you’ve got unanimous agreement, the date in Article 50 effectively changes from March 29 to whatever is agreed.”

There will only be a change to the extended deadline in two circumstances: Either a withdrawal agreement has (as if by magic) entered into force or notification of the intention to withdraw is revoked.

In the meantime, Britain’s MPs are hotly debating the length of an Article 50 extension although the general public are likely to be very surprised if they actually agree on anything ever again.

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