U.K.: The EU Delays a Brexit Scare Until Halloween

5 MINS READApr 11, 2019 | 19:11 GMT
The Big PIcture

A no-deal Brexit — and the economic fallout that would ensue in Europe — has, once again, been temporarily averted. A new six-month extension gives the European Union and the United Kingdom more time to address the many outstanding questions about their future relationship. It does, however, prolong the political crisis in London, which is something neither parliament nor the British population will be thrilled about. 

What Happened

In the early hours of April 11, EU leaders decided to delay Brexit until October 31. The European Union will allow the United Kingdom to leave earlier if it approves a withdrawal agreement before that date. EU leaders also asked London to "act in a responsible manner" and not to disrupt the policy-making process in the bloc during the extra months it will be a member state. 

What It Means

The most immediate consequence of the European Union's decision is that there will no longer be a no-deal exit on April 12, which is when the United Kingdom had been scheduled to leave the European Union. It also means that the United Kingdom will have to participate in the elections for the European Parliament on May 22 if no withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons before then. 

The new October deadline is a strategic compromise between the EU governments that wanted a longer delay (led by Germany) and those pushing for a very short delay (led by France). It gives the United Kingdom time to approve an exit deal, but not enough to allow them to participate in the appointment of the new European Commission, which will be shortly inaugurated around November, that is, if Brussels doesn't grant London another extension.

The only thing certain about the new Brexit deadline that it will prolong uncertainty about the United Kingdom's relationship with Europe.

The European Union's call for the United Kingdom to act responsively was more of a symbolic statement than an actual threat, since there is little the bloc can legally do to curtail the voting rights of a full member state. Some pro-Brexit hardliners in the Conservative Party have already suggested that London instead defy Brussels' warning and disrupt the EU policy-making process, to use it as leverage in exit negotiations. And while it's within the United Kingdom's power to do so, it's unlikely May's government will try to boycott the European Union at the same time it's trying to reach a trade agreement with it. 

What Happens Next

  • Withdrawal agreement: In theory, the House of Commons can still approve the withdrawal agreement in the coming weeks and leave the bloc before the EU parliament elections in May, which is Prime Minister Theresa May's preferred option. But delaying Brexit by six months has removed pressure on lawmakers to approve a deal in the immediate term. The same logic applies to the Labour Party, the main opposition party, which recently began negotiating with the Conservatives on a joint Brexit plan. But now that the prospect of a no-deal exit has been postponed, the party may have little interest in throwing a lifeline to May's troubled government. 
  • EU negotiations: The European Union will reject renegotiating the withdrawal agreement it reached with May's government in November 2018. But it will be open to using this added time to rework the political declaration about its future trade ties with the United Kingdom — especially if London requests a softer Brexit, such as remaining in the EU customs union.
  • An early election: An early election in the United Kingdom is still on the cards, considering that the House of Commons remains as divided as ever. And now, London feasibly has enough time to hold an early vote, appoint a new government, and come up with a new Brexit strategy before the Oct. 31 deadline. But this would require May convincing enough lawmakers in her Conservative Party to call for an early election, which will be a tough sell for the many who fear doing so would result in the loss of their seats.
  • May's future: The Conservative Party can only challenge its leader once every 12 months, meaning May's rivals within the governing party cannot formally oust her for another eight months (after their failed attempt in December). But in the meantime, May's leadership will remain weak and the pressure for her to resign will continue to increase — especially if local elections and the vote for the EU parliament in the month of May result in a poor performance by the Conservatives. Should Theresa May resign, her party would have to appoint a new leader who would then become Prime Minister — opening the door for her to be replaced by a hardliner who's more likely to push for a no-deal exit.
  • A do-over: Six months should also give the United Kingdom enough time to organize another referendum vote. And, of course, London still has the power to unilaterally abort a Brexit altogether. But both of these scenarios will remain unlikely as long as May's government is in place.

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