Brexit is delayed, again.
European Union leaders agreed in the early morning hours on Thursday to extend the Brexit deadline until October 31, 2019, postponing the UK’s departure about six months from the scheduled April 12 departure date.
The EU’s decision to grant another Brexit extension to the UK averts a disastrous no-deal on Friday. But the offer comes with some conditions. The United Kingdom will have to participate in European parliamentary elections May 23 through 26, or risk leaving the EU on June 1 without a deal. The EU also said it would schedule a summit in June, to review the UK’s status and make sure it was behaving during its extended EU membership.
The extension is also notably longer than British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for a June 30 deadline — but the EU also said, as part of its offer, that it would leave open the possibility that if Parliament manages to pass a Brexit deal in the coming weeks, the UK could exit the EU before that Halloween date.
“This extension as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said Thursday. “But it’s still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time,”
An October Brexit is the compromise solution among EU leaders, who were reportedly split on how much extra time to give the UK. French President Emmanuel Macron, who’s taken a tough stance with the UK over its Brexit dithering, apparently pushed for a shorter deadline over the objections of EU counterparts. Macron’s stance seems to have won out, much to the frustration of other EU diplomats.
Macron’s position likely wasn’t intended to give May a win, but rather to simply get Brexit over with, though it could work to the prime minister’s advantage all the same. An October extension is slightly less humiliating for her than the end of the year, or even March 2020, some of the other proposed dates that were reportedly discussed. And the flexibility still gives May the chance to get out on her original timeline; she stressed Thursday she believes the UK must still leave the EU “as soon as possible.”
But it’s still unclear what the UK plans to accomplish with these extra six months, or what the EU expects it to achieve.
A long deadline that’s somehow still pretty short
Right now there’s only one Brexit deal on offer. May is meeting with the opposition Labour Party to try to find a compromise that will finally get this deal through Parliament, with some tweaks that will likely lock in a softer Brexit for the future UK-EU relationship.
But it’s not assured the two sides can forge a bipartisan consensus — or how long it might take. And the deadline is extremely tight when it comes to alternative proposals for Brexit, such as attempting to get approval for and hold a second referendum.
The UK will now have to participate in European parliamentary elections May 23 through 26, which is as big a signal as any that Britain remains squarely within the EU. This costs money and requires UK parties to field candidates for these positions.
The EU is also likely nervous that candidates who are skeptical of the European Union and mad about Brexit will run for the UK seats — though there are some (very) early signs that Labour and other leftist candidates might have an edge.
May’s political future is also extremely uncertain. The prime minister has previously said that an extension longer than June 30 would be unacceptable. There’s still a chance she could get her current deal through Parliament and take the UK out earlier — but since this is the real world, the likelihood that objections to her deal and divisions within Parliament will suddenly evaporate seems close to impossible.
Pro-Brexit hardliners in her Conservative Party — who just saw Brexit slip from their grasp for a second time — are likely to object to the delay and intensify their calls that May resign. Conservatives are limited in their power to contest her, as she survived a leadership challenge in December, which protects her from another party rebellion for at least a year. May did promise to resign if Parliament passed her deal. And Parliament most definitely has not passed her deal.
This latest Brexit delay saves the continent from a catastrophic no-deal this week. But it hasn’t erased uncertainty or chaos altogether. And now that the UK expects to participate in the European parliamentary elections, there’s little on the schedule, at least practically, that stops a still-paralyzed UK from asking for another extension sometime this fall.