In the early hours of the 22nd of March, European Council leaders have agreed to concede a short extension to the United Kingdom to allow for an orderly exit from the European Union. There are, however, some clarifications that ought to be made to fully grasp the European Council’s outcomes. On the one hand, if Mrs May will manage to push her deal through Parliament, then the UK will have up to the 22nd of May to finalise their exit. In other words, EU leaders have agreed to the so-called ‘technical extension period’ asked for by the PM, even if this falls short of the requested June extended deadline initially brought forth by Downing Street. On the other hand, if Parliament wows not to accept May’s deal by next week, the delay will only be a short one – up to April 12.
European Elections 2019: with or without you?
This latter date is of particular importance. In fact, Mrs May has ruled out the possibility that the UK will take part in the upcoming European elections, due to take place on the 24-26 May. However, if the United Kingdom is still a Member State by that period, it will be under the obligation under EU law to hold EP elections. In this regard, the second date that the EC has agreed to comes into place. In fact, the United Kingdom would have to give notice of the poll no later than the 12th of April. In this scenario, it becomes obvious why the two-step Brexit delay has been agreed to. Either the UK has the necessary legislation in place to leave in an orderly way – put simply, Parliament endorsees May’s withdrawal deal – and is allowed a short technical extension to May 22nd, or it has to make clear what the path ahead would be, no later than the 12th of April. In even simpler terms: a further extension beyond April 12 is only possible if the UK agrees to hold European elections, yet another red line that the PM has already ruled out. This is why, unless Parliament endorses the withdrawal agreement, the no deal scenario is now more likely than ever.
Outstanding issues 1): The Strasbourg Agreement
There are several matters that need to be cleared out in the upcoming weeks. First of all, whether the Government will be able to bring the withdrawal agreement back to the House. In fact, Commons Speaker John Bercow has ruled that the government cannot bring forward proposals for a vote that are substantially the same as those already defeated before, having based his decision on a controversial norm in the UK parliamentary practice book, the Erskine May, which crystallises a customary principle dating back from 1604. In this regard, the fact that the European Council has endorsed the so-called ‘Strasbourg Agreement’ could nevertheless shine a ray of sun on the prospects of the withdrawal agreement. This means not only that, as an outcome of the European Council, the Strasbourg Agreement now has full legal validity under EU law, but, moreover, as the question would not be substantially the same, the Speaker could not stop the government from holding another meaningful vote. The Strasbourg Agreement, negotiated just ahead of the second meaningful vote held in March, provides further legal assurances on the overly-critiqued Northern Irish Backstop, which has proved to be the Achilles’ Heel of May’s withdrawal agreement.
Outstanding issues 2): Government vs. Parliament
Secondly, it is unclear what the Government’s strategy would entail if Parliament rejects the withdrawal agreement yet another time. In this regard, the European Council’s decision has finally put the UK in front of their responsibilities. By setting the deadline on April 12, it is evident that EU institutions and Member States are pushing British MPs to converge to the centre of the political arena and vote for the PM’s deal. This could be a strong incentive for gathering both the Eurosceptics’ votes – especially those of the ERG Group of the Conservative Party – as the fear of a longer withdrawal extension risks jeopardising their Brexit hopes, and those of Europhile MPs, as the most likely outcome of the extension to April 12 is still a cliff edge Brexit. The truth will possibly emerge on Wednesday, as Parliament has recently passed the “Letwin Amendment”, which allows the House to take control of the parliamentary business and propose alternative ways forward.