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The UK Parliament has voted to delay Brexit

The European Union will have to approve any extension, likely at a summit next week.

Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street to attend PMQ’s
Prime Minister Theresa May on March 13, 2019.
Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

The UK Parliament has voted to postpone the Brexit deadline — but it’s now up to the European Union to agree to an extension.

Prime Minister Theresa May put forward a measure Thursday that sought to delay the UK’s exit from the EU beyond the current March 29 deadline. Parliament voted 412 to 202 in favor.

Parliament approved the extension a day after it voted against leaving the European Union without some sort of deal in place, and two days after members of Parliament rejected the prime minister’s Brexit deal by an overwhelming margin for the second time.

But a “Brextension” is not guaranteed — and could be complicated.

May has said that she would ask the EU for “a short limited technical extension,” until June 30, if Parliament approved her Brexit deal on March 20. This means she would try to pass her plan a third time. If her deal were to pass, the delay would simply provide the UK Parliament more time to pass the legislation to put the Brexit deal into law.

But, May warned, if Parliament doesn’t want to accept her deal a third time and doesn’t want to leave without a plan in place, then it’s possible any delay will have to be a long one, beyond the end of June.

May’s ultimatum appeared to be a last-minute threat to hardline Brexiteers — those members of Parliament (MPs) who keep voting down her deal but also want a decisive break with the EU. She’s basically warning them to get behind her plan or risk giving Parliament more time to figure out something else that will be far less desirable to them — like a softer Brexit, or a second referendum vote.

Ultimately, it’s up to the European Union to decide whether to grant any kind of extension. All 27 member states have to unanimously approve a delay, and they are almost certainly going to ask the UK: What is a delay good for?

The UK says it wants more time. But it’s really up to the EU.

The EU has been reluctant to grant the UK an extension unless it has a solution to break the political impasse. Parliament agrees it doesn’t like May’s deal, and says it doesn’t want to leave the EU without an agreement — but it hasn’t come to a consensus beyond that.

The EU doesn’t want the blame for the potential fallout of a no-deal Brexit on March 29, but it has said a reason for an extension can’t be more negotiations over May’s deal. What might meet the EU’s threshold, though, is a postponement that would allow the UK to better prepare for a no-deal Brexit, a technical delay to implement the Brexit deal if it’s approved on a third vote, or a dramatic shift in UK politics, such as a second referendum or general elections.

Both May and the EU have said any delay that lasts more than a few months will require the UK to participate in the European parliamentary elections, from May 23 to 26. (The new members of European Parliament take their seats at the beginning of July, so that’s how May came up with the June 30 date.) Both the UK and EU would almost certainly like to avoid this scenario, but a major political shake-up like a referendum or elections will almost certainly take more than a few months to plan and coordinate.

Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, seems to be the one EU leader who’s pushing for a longer extension to give the UK time to “rethink” its position. But there’s no real indication yet that others in Brussels want to drag out Brexit much longer, and a delay without a clear objective only adds to the uncertainty around the UK-EU divorce.

EU leaders will likely make their final decision at the European Council summit starting March 21, which is almost certainly why May is seeking a third deal vote on March 20.

“At this point, it’s hard to see an endgame that doesn’t involve an extension of time, which will likely be agreed upon by both sides,” Spencer Boyer, a fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, told me in an email earlier this week.

A delay avoids the immediate catastrophe of a no-deal Brexit on March 29, but it still doesn’t solve the UK’s Brexit deadlock. But how May and the EU react to Thursday’s vote will offer some clues as to what’s next.

For now, the Brexit deadline, just 15 days away, still stands.

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