British Prime Minister Theresa May safeguarded her EU-UK deal by striking a winning point at the very last minute when she secured the backing of the House of Commons on a delay to Brexit just a few days after the Withdrawal Agreement suffered a second rejection from by UK MPs.
What keeps the deal on life support was the 14 March vote in favour of her motion to delay. This allows May to have more breathing room ahead of a decisive European Council meeting while also giving May more space to persuade doubters in her own Conservative Party to back her proposal. This has put the EU-27 in a holding pattern as it long forces them to make their decisions during the very last meeting of what is now a last-chance summit for the UK.
All of this comes, however, at the same time when patience with Brexit is rapidly running out for many in the bloc.
May’s ultimate ‘meaningful vote’ – which comes ahead of the EU chiefs’ government meeting – will determine whether the UK will ask for a short or a long delay for Brexit.
Brussels’ position ahead of both of these key events has not changed, nor has the European Commission or many of the EU’s leaders failed to underline that the current Withdrawal Agreement is “the only deal on the table”.
The Netherlands’ Prime Minister Mark Rutte, called the House of Commons rejection of the agreement as a move that is akin to the “Titanic voting for the iceberg to move”.
The British Parliament rejected the deal this week. However, the Lower House voted in favour of a postponement of the British withdrawal from the EU, which is otherwise scheduled to happen on the 29 March.
‘Trapped’ by the backstop, or ‘trapped’ by the extension?
According to the UK’s argument, there are now two options that May is expected to table. She is prepared to offer a simple choice for the British Parliament – back the deal they’ve already emphatically rejected twice and deliver a Brexit delay that will allow for enough time to pass any pending legislation that will make the deal effective, or risk being trapped in an extension that would last much longer, possibly to the end of 2020 with the terms set by the EU and still no end in sight to the UK’s domestic problems.
UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock underlined that the UK either gets the deal though and leaves in an orderly manner or take the EU-favoured option of a long delay. “I think that would be a disaster and I’m emphatically against that because it wouldn’t solve anything,” he said, keeping in mind that any extension that goes beyond the end of May would lead the UK to fulfil its obligation of having to take part in the European elections as it would still be a member of the bloc at that time. This was made clear to before the failed vote on 12 March by European-Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in his letter to European Council President Donald Tusk ahead of the EU Summit.
Britain has acknowledged that the EU Treaties stipulate that EU citizens have the right to be represented in the European Parliament and there is no legal mechanism by which the UK could return MEPs to the new EP other than by participating in the elections. To add to this point, and in order for the new European Parliament to perform its functions – including the appointment of the new European Commission and the adoption of any legislation, the chamber needs to be properly constituted under the EU Treaties with duly elected representatives from all EU member states, including the UK.
Without its MEPs the chamber would be “improperly constituted,” putting the functioning of the EU’s institutions at risk. For this to happen, and the UK to participate in the European elections, returning officers must publish a notification about the vote by 12 April, before which the British government must set a date for the poll by an Order approved by the House of Commons.
This threat, May hopes, will probably soften just enough of the pro-Brexit MPs in Commons, securing her enough support for the last ‘meaningful vote’ on 20 March. The EU clearly favours a longer extension, as Tusk made clear. This would make the discussion meaningful if the UK is unwilling to support the already negotiated draft treaty.
What hasn’t been discussed, however, is the uncertainty that worries the EU-27 more than its leaders communicate in public. It is noteworthy, that Juncker asked May in private what guarantees he might have that he wouldn’t be negotiating with Boris Johnson, the UK’s former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, at some point.
Back in 2016, the now Secretary-General of the European Commission Martin Selmayr, said Johnson – one of the most prominent supporters of Brexit campaigner, was a part of the same dangerous, anti-EU forces that are led by France’s Marine Le Pen and Italy’s Beppe Grillo. Selmayr called their possible rise to positions of power as a “horror scenario”.
What if the UK is not granted an extension?
If everything fails, then May has promised the British MPs that they will have a chance to take over on 25 March, four days before the official Brexit date. She also offered the possibility to vote for an even softer Brexit than what’s on the table with the Withdrawal Agreement.