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Europe

EU says Britain would need a good reason for delaying Brexit

media A banner belonging to anti-Brexit protestors can be seen outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain February 7, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

The EU has indicated it’s ready to grant the UK an extension on Brexit – if London puts forward a convincing reason as to why it’s merited.

Of course we’re not there yet. British MPs must put their voting skills to the test two more times before Brussels receives a knock on the door asking for a reprieve on the infamous 29 March deadline.

We’re still in the land of hypotheticals, but with gargantuan divisions in Westminster, and with the EU laying out its hand, there’s at least some consensus on what’s likely to happen next.

What we do know is that MPs in the House of Commons will have a free vote Wednesday night on whether the UK should leave the EU without a deal. They’re expected to overwhelmingly reject a no-deal Brexit, and then reconvene 24 hours later for another vote on whether Brexit should be delayed.

So much work still needs to be done to avoid a very damaging no-deal scenario. Ironically, a no-deal Brexit requires much more negotiation.

What we don’t know is what a delay might look like, or whether it will be allowed. Postponing Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty raises legal questions, and it’s not something that can be decided by the UK alone: the rest of the 27 EU states must unanimously agree to it. The view of most commentators is that Brussels would oblige such a request – but with conditions.

“A short delay until June is probably going to happen no matter what,” says Ronny Patz, a political researcher at Munich's Ludwig Maximilian University. “The question is whether there will be a delay longer than this that requires the UK to participate in the 23 May European parliamentary elections – and I don’t see this happening unless the UK presents a clear way forward to what happens after June.”

Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker present their new Brexit plan on March 11, 2019. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

Brexit impasse 'can only be resolved in the UK'

Since Theresa May’s second Brexit defeat in parliament Tuesday night, the EU has largely been pointing the finger at London. Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Brussels has done everything possible for Brexit, and the deadlock can now only be solved by the UK itself.

A source at the Elysée Palace cited by the French daily Le Monde says France "regrets" the failure of the Brexit plan, but agreed the solution to the current stalemate “can only be found in London”.

If the UK doesn't participate in EU parliamentary elections, and are not represented in Brussels even though they are still in the EU, then this is a massive breach of EU law.

Meanwhile a spokesman for EU Council President Donald Tusk said the EU had done "everything possible" to help May ratify her divorce agreement. “We gave additional assurances in December 2018, in January, and again on Monday. It's hard to see what more we could have done," the spokesman said.

While the EU is growing more impatient, it does not want to bear any responsibility for a no-deal Brexit, says Famke Krumbmuller, of the French political risk consultancy OpenCitiz – adding the elections to the European parliament are a major hurdle, especially with EU Commission President Jean Claude Junker warning the UK must leave the EU by 23 May, or else take part.

EU parliamentary elections complicate Brexit

“These elections obviously pose a problem because if the UK participates in them and sends MEPs to Brussels, this would be a truly complicated political move,” Krumbmuller says.

“On the other hand, if they do not participate and are not represented in Brussels even though they are still in the EU, then this is a massive breach of EU law – so it’s unclear how they would get around that.”

A delay to Brexit is likely, say analysts. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh/File Photo

Europe appears to be hardening its position on how a Brexit extension would play out. When Tusk and Juncker first mooted the possibility in February, no conditions were given.

Since then, both France and Germany have said that in order to secure a delay of six months or more, not only would Britain need to participate in the European elections, it would also need to promise something new on the political horizon that could end the impasse – such as second Brexit referendum, or general elections.

There’s still appetite on both sides of the channel to avert a “disaster”, says Pieter Cleppe, who heads the Brussels office of the think tank Open Europe.

"Neither side is properly prepared for a no-deal scenario. Just look at the range of agreements that would need to be reached in order to protect aviation and finance,” Cleppe says. “So much work still needs to be done to avoid a very damaging no-deal scenario. Ironically, a no-deal requires much more negotiation. Therefore the most likely scenario is that an extension be agreed."

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