Although UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson managed to secure a new deal with the EU on 17 October, the British Parliament had other plans after a narrow vote of 322 to 306 saw the House of Commons amended the government’s bill for a new deal, which forced Johnson to request an extension of his country’s planned unilateral withdrawal from the European Union.
The European Council received no less than three letters from the British government, all of which were related to the outcome of the landmark vote in the House of Commons on 19 October. Enclosed in the letters was an unsigned photocopy of the draft text that called for Johnson to request an extension, a letter from Tim Barrow, the UK’s ambassador to the EU, which clarified the British government’s intentions to proceed with the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement later this week, and a signed letter from Johnson, himself, to European Council President Donald Tusk where he clarified that he did not want an extension as this would damage the interests of the UK and EU.
Johnson’s unsigned letter has provoked several visceral reactions from those opposed to Brexit. John McDonnell, the deputy leader of the opposition Labour party, said that Johnson has put himself above the law and above all accountability. Other voices also requested that Johnson comply with Britain’s long-standing legal precedents, but the sitting prime minister remained defiant throughout the weekend saying, “I will not negotiate a delay with the EU,” before adding, “the law does not compel me to do so.”
Tusk, after accepting the letter pro forma, said in a tweet on 19 October that he would begin consultations with the EU-27’s leaders on how to proceed with the request. The following day, the 27 ambassadors of the remaining members of the European Union briefly met to discuss Johnson’s request with Michel Barnier, Europe’s chief Brexit negotiator.
The group of top diplomats formally initiated the ratification process for the new deal and decided to send the file to the European Parliament for its approval. There were, however, no discussions regarding the length of a potential delay that would extend beyond the 31 October deadline.
Johnson’s government is expected to make another attempt to win the backing of enough MPs on 21 October in order to proceed with putting together legislation that would see the officially leave the EU on 31 October. Johnson wants a clear “yes” or “no” response to the deal and it is up to Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow to decide whether to allow the vote.
In response to the developments in the UK at the weekend, Chancellor Angela Merkel told EU leaders that granting an extension would be unavoidable and that they should not push for a no-deal Brexit.