World / Politics

EU sick of Brexit but likely to grant a third extension

Reuters, AP, AFP-JIJI

European Union chiefs are so fed up with Brexit that when they clinched a new divorce deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week they did not want to entertain the need to delay Britain’s departure beyond Oct. 31.

But after Johnson failed to get the agreement approved in Parliament on Saturday and then sent a letter to seek an extension for the divorce, there seemed very little chance that the other 27 members states would refuse.

A law passed by Parliament last month set a late-night deadline for the government to send a letter asking the EU for a three-month postponement if lawmakers had not approved an agreement by Saturday.

An hour before the deadline, European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted: “The extension request has just arrived. I will now start consulting EU leaders on how to react.”

Johnson made clear he was making the request under duress. The letter was not signed, and was accompanied by a second letter — this one signed by Johnson — arguing that delay would “damage the interests of the U.K. and our EU partners.”

Earlier in the day, Johnson had told lawmakers that “further delay would be bad for this country, bad for the European Union and bad for democracy.”

Parliament’s first weekend sitting since the Falklands War of 1982 had been dubbed “Super Saturday.” It looked set to bring Britain’s Brexit saga to a head, but the government’s hopes were derailed when House of Commons Speaker John Bercow said he would allow a vote on an amendment to put the vote on the deal off until another day.

The amendment makes support for the deal conditional on passage of the legislation to implement it, something that could take several days or weeks. It also gives lawmakers another chance to scrutinize — and possibly change— the Brexit departure terms while the legislation is in Parliament.

The government is seeking a new vote on its deal on Monday, although this may fall foul of parliamentary procedure.

If it introduces the treaty implementation bill on Monday, MPs could be called to vote as early as Tuesday.Johnson wrote to Tusk that he was “confident” he could get it through before the end of the month.

However, the main opposition party, Labour, has condemned the deal as a “sell-out” and Johnson’s Northern Irish allies are opposed to its arrangements for the province.

After Johnson called Tusk earlier in the evening, an EU official made clear that the bloc would not rush, saying Tusk’s consultations “may take a few days.”

EU leaders were considering Johnson’s request on Sunday. Johnson had already spoken to the leaders of France, Germany and the Netherlands to press his case — and Paris warned Saturday that a Brexit delay was “in nobody’s interest.”

The bloc hopes the deal can still pass in the factious House of Commons in time to let Britain leave with a deal on Oct. 31.

The EU would, however, need to step in if that started looking unlikely if it wants to avoid a “no-deal” Brexit at the end of the month.

“I can’t see them refusing,” said Anand Menon, director of U.K. in a Changing Europe and an expert on the issue. “They don’t want no-deal — and they certainly don’t want to be blamed for it.”

EU leaders might end up agreeing on any new Brexit date at a hastily convened emergency summit, possibly next weekend.

After Parliament voted Saturday to withhold support for Johnson’s Brexit deal he was obliged, by law, to request the postponement from the EU.

The EU 27 have already agreed twice to postpone Brexit from the original deadline of March 29 this year. However, frustration has mounted among them over the distraction of a process that has dragged on for 3½ years since Britons voted in a referendum to leave the EU. After the second extension they said it would be the last one.

French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most outspoken and hawkish among the EU 27’s leaders on the issue. His camp stresses the cost of protracted uncertainty in terms of sapping the EU’s political capital and attention to face challenges from climate and migration to international crises, as well as the economic cost for companies that have invested in contingency preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Despite French misgivings, the EU has repeatedly made clear it would not want to be seen pushing a member state out and that its absolute priority was to avoid any no-deal Brexit, especially one for which it would take the blame if it refused to postpone Brexit.

An extension can only be granted by unanimity among the 27. Asked whether there was any serious risk that Macron could refuse it, another EU official said, “No.”

“If there is a chance of a deal, they will never choose no-deal,” said Nick Petre, spokesman for the Renew Europe group of liberals in the European Parliament.

The House of Commons last month passed a law demanding the government seek a delay until the end of January to avoid an abrupt split on Oct. 31 if a divorce deal was not approved by Parliament by Oct. 19.

It is possible that the EU 27 will grant a “technical extension” of just one month until the end of November to keep pressure on Britain.

“It can still just be a technical extension, only until the end of November. And they could still get out of it if they manage to pass it before Oct. 31,” said an EU diplomat who deals with Brexit.

Another EU diplomat said the length of an extension and conditions attached would depend on the purpose behind the request.

“If we still hope to be able to salvage this deal, we’d be looking at shorter ones,” the diplomat said. “Then, if we are looking at elections or second referendums, a longer one would most likely be needed.”

Many in Brussels believe there could be no more delays beyond mid-2020 because the bloc needs the rest of the year to prepare its long-term budget from 2021 and wants to know whether Britain will go on paying to the joint coffers.