On 29 March 2017, the United Kingdom triggered Article 50, setting a two-year time-frame for sorting its way out of the European Union. Fast-forward to the present and the chances for the UK’s orderly departure seem rather slim. Namely, Brexit has reached its peak in terms of complexity (and messiness) after Prime Minister Theresa May failed to acquire support at her home ground, after the members of the UK Parliament (MPs) rejected her deal, not once, but twice. Although less than two weeks are left before the UK is set to officially leave the Union, PM May continues insisting that her deal is still the best available option on the table, while adding that any other alternative would call Brexit into question.
After the Withdrawal Agreement was unanimously backed by the EU27, the EU officials have highlighted, on multiple occasions, that the negotiations have been thereby concluded. Yet, the MPs are not giving up on their intention of acquiring further concessions. In fact, on 13 March, the UK Parliament completely rejected, in the form of a non-binding vote, the possibility of a no-deal; and only a day later, MPs voted overwhelmingly for an extension of the negotiations. Therefore, the question arises as to how long can the entire process be extended and what purpose this extension would serve?
Option A: Short-term Extension
So far, the most common suggestion has been that the extension should last until the elections for the European Parliament (EP), set to take place between 23 and 26 May; or at the latest, by the end of June, that is, before the beginning of the next EP’s term. What is more, PM May backs this option, as she has announced, on 20 March, that she would seek an extension in Brussels to 30 June, to be precise. Even if the EU27 were to give a green light, it is clear that a short extension of this kind will represent a mere delay during which no substantial progress will have been possible, especially since the negotiations on the final agreement had already been closed. If that is the case, why would anyone argue for this type of extension? Namely, an additional period of three months may allow the UK to align with one of the following three possibilities: the eventual adoption of May’s deal, leaving without a deal, and the withdrawal of the intention to leave the Union.
Firstly, during this period, the MPs may realise that it is illusory to expect the EU to backtrack, thus resorting to pick May’s plan as a better (or a less-harmful) alternative to a no-deal after all. In that case, the short-term extension would primarily serve to initiate and complete the process of ratifying the deal, and as such, it would be technical in nature. This is an option that the EU would certainly welcome, as it would enable a “soft” and orderly exit of the UK from the Union. In this case, the UK would fulfil all of its obligations undertaken in the Withdrawal Agreement: the UK would honour its financial commitments to the EU, the rights of EU citizens living, working, and studying in the UK would be guaranteed, while the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be kept open, thus allowing smooth flow of goods and people to continue. Yet, for this scenario to occur, PM May and her supporters will need to find a way to bypass the decision made by the Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow on 18 March, that there will be no third vote on the same matter unless and until substantial change is introduced to the current withdrawal arrangement.
Secondly, in case MPs continue rejecting PM May’s proposal, then a no-deal Brexit becomes one of the likely possibilities. If this were to happen, a short-term extension would serve only as a period during which the UK would try to increase its preparedness and thus reduce the consequences caused by its abrupt departure from the Union. To that extent, the UK Government has already spent more than £4bn and hired more than 10,000 staffers. Yet, if this option becomes a reality, the three-month period will certainly be insufficient for the UK to prepare for all the misfortunes that are to come, as there is a consensus among the expert community that the UK is far from ready for a no-deal scenario. Similarly, the same argument on unpreparedness for a no-deal can be made for the EU as well, which is why it is unsurprising that this scenario represents its least preferable option.
Finally, Brexit in its fullest sense might not take place after all. As the European Court of Justice ruled, in January 2019, the UK reserves the right to unilaterally withdraw its intention to leave the Union. Knowing this, at the end of the short extension, the UK Government has the ability to, with the support of the UK Parliament, make a U-turn on Brexit and thus cancel it altogether. For now, this option seems the least likely.
All in all, the short-term extension is something that the EU27 would likely approve, given that it would be relatively costless to the member states, whereas it would leave open the possibility of Brexit being called off. Unsurprisingly, this is the option that the EU desires the most.
Option B: Long-term Extension
An option that implies an extension of Brexit long after the European Parliament elections is something that has caused a lot of controversies. Namely, there are two key reasons for such a commotion: the necessity of UK’s participation in the EP elections and the absence of consensus on the potential duration of this long-term extension.
First, the implementation of a long-term extension would mean that the UK would be legally bound to take part in the EP elections. Alternatively, there are already analyses showing that the current British Members of the EP could be asked to “continue serving” in the next EP configuration, or instead, the UK Government could “appoint national representatives” from the UK Parliament to take part in the work of the EP. However, none of these alternatives has obtained momentum in the eyes of the expert public, so it is unlikely that the UK will be able to avoid calling the elections for the European Parliament.
Secondly, even if the UK were to organise the EP elections, there is currently no consensus on how long this long-term extension would last. Some have suggested the end of 2019 as the deadline, while others have even spoken about the end of 2021. Not only are the UK government officials and MPs divided on this issue, but the EU member states are as well. For instance, Ireland has shown willingness to extend the process as much it is needed to prevent a no-deal scenario, while countries like France and Germany have shown more reservations on this matter. The divisions are understandable, as the process has brought forth the phenomenon called Brexit fatigue. To that extent, if the whole process stretches for too long, there are many voices indicating that Brexit would lose its purpose, especially due to the fact that almost three years (i.e. 1000 days to be exact) have already passed since the Brexit referendum.
All in all, a long-term extension scenario complicates things even further. In order for it to take place, the UK will have to provide a valid reason if it wants the EU27 to unanimously approve it. In this context, two reasons may prove sufficient: the UK snap elections or a second referendum.
Firstly, snap elections in the UK would definitely bring Brexit to a temporary halt. The last time the UK had elections of this kind, back in June 2017, the negotiating position of PM May was further weakened as she had no other way but to form, in the aftermath of the elections, a coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) from Northern Ireland – a junior partner which has later turned out to be a thorn in PM May’s side. For this reason, there is a reasonable fear that every subsequent election in the UK has a great chance of additionally complicating the UK’s political agenda. Hence, such developments are unlikely to be of any help when it comes to resolving the existing Brexit deadlock. Nevertheless, the next snap elections should not be completely ruled out, especially as the most recent survey shows that most UK citizens want PM May to step down – a sentiment which a significant number of members of her Conservative Party also shares.
Secondly, organising a second referendum would be the most reasonable justification in the eyes of the EU for a long-term extension. As it took around six months to organise and implement the original Brexit referendum, it becomes evident that a long-term extension would be necessary if another referendum were to be organised in the future. Double checking the will of the citizens is something that has already been supported by a large part of the Labour Party, whereas polls show that most citizens would, in fact, vote to remain in the EU in the event of another referendum. Nevertheless, it seems that the issue of the second referendum is far-fetched at the moment, because PM May and the majority of the Conservative Party do not show readiness to support the realisation of this solution.
After PM May submitted her request for a short extension, the ball is back in the court of Brussels, as the EU27 are now set to decide whether granting an extension would be warranted. Even if an extension is approved, previous analysis shows that chances for a no-deal will increase significantly. Although a no-deal is an option that neither the UK nor the EU want, it may prove to be an inevitability.