Mar 20, 2019 | 22:01 GMT

5 mins read

U.K.: The EU Sends May an Ultimatum on Brexit

The Big Picture

As the scheduled March 29 date for Brexit approaches, the United Kingdom and the European Union are seeking ways to avoid the country exiting from the bloc without an agreement over their future relationship. But while the British Parliament struggles to agree on an exit deal, the bloc is pressuring London to make important decisions about the future. A Brexit extension is still possible, but London and Brussels are running out of time to make it happen.

What Happened

There's a new twist in the United Kingdom's Brexit saga. On March 20, the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, confirmed that a short delay to the country's exit from the Continental bloc was possible — but only if the House of Commons first approves a withdrawal agreement next week. Tusk made the statement just hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May formally asked the European Union to push back the date of departure from March 29 to June 30. 

Why It Matters

Tusk's ultimatum means that British parliamentarians have just nine days to approve a withdrawal agreement if they want to delay the Brexit date. If they don't, the country could crash out of Europe without a deal. In the coming days, May will face two major tests. The first is to organize a new vote on the withdrawal deal, after the speaker of the Commons blocked what would have been a third vote on the document this week, arguing that lawmakers cannot vote on the same agreement that they have already rejected. When EU leaders meet for a summit on March 21-22, May hopes they will endorse the document containing reassurances about the temporary nature of the so-called Irish backstop that she negotiated with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week. The backstop is a measure that aims to keep the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland open until a solution to the border dilemma can be found. Some fear that the reimposition of border controls could reignite sectarian conflict on the island. In turn, the prime minister hopes their approval will suffice to justify a new vote in the Commons. If this happens, then May's second test will be to actually win the vote. British lawmakers rejected the withdrawal agreement her government negotiated with the European Union by a large margin in January and again earlier this month.

Hard-liners within the governing Conservative Party now face a dilemma. Many could opt to support May's withdrawal agreement to prevent a long delay of Brexit. But others could decide to continue voting against it, hoping that it would lead to a no-deal exit if Brussels refuses to give London more time. The main opposition Labour Party will face a similar headache. It officially objects to May's deal, but it also wishes to avoid a disorderly Brexit. Should the Commons approve a withdrawal agreement by March 29, London and Brussels would have to negotiate the exact duration of the extension (the United Kingdom has asked for a delay until June 30, while the EU Commission said it would grant one that stretches to May 23). In such a situation, the parties would probably reach an agreement relatively easily, as he main hurdle — approving a deal — would have been cleared.

EU leaders could simply decide not to give the United Kingdom more time, leading to a no-deal Brexit.

What if the Commons Fails to Approve a Deal Next Week?

The real problem is what would happen if the Commons does not approve a deal by March 29. In his statement, Tusk did not explicitly rule out a longer extension, but he did not mention it either. He did, however, say that if the United Kingdom does not approve a withdrawal agreement by the end of next week, he would hold an extraordinary meeting with EU leaders to decide their next course of action. They could simply decide not to give London more time, leading to a no-deal Brexit. But EU members that have close trade and political ties with the United Kingdom would probably pressure their peers to grant the country more time. Indeed, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said on March 20 that "it's time now to cut the British government some slack when it comes to their request for an extension." But other governments, most notably France's, have been strident in their demands that the United Kingdom lay out a clear plan about what it plans to do with the extra time.

And even giving the United Kingdom a long extension would not end the Brexit drama. May could ultimately resign in the face of the Commons' intransigence against her plans. This would force the Conservatives to appoint a new leader, who would become prime minister. But given the deep divisions among Tories at present, it is unclear whether a different leader could force a Brexit deal through Parliament without support from Labour, which would push for a softer Brexit. The country could also call snap elections in the hopes that a different Commons would finally approve a deal. Alternatively, it could just organize another referendum on splitting from the European Union — albeit only after other ideas have proven ineffective. Whatever the case, the United Kingdom's path to Brexit is becoming more complicated by the day.

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