EU likely to approve Brexit extension, but in what form?

Banners, the Union Jack and EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Tuesday, as MPs debated the second reading of the British government's European Union Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
Banners, the Union Jack and EU flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Tuesday, as MPs debated the second reading of the British government's European Union Withdrawal Agreement Bill.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BRUSSELS• • Will the other European Union members grant Britain an extension to leave the bloc beyond its Oct 31 deadline and, if they do, what will the delay look like?

British lawmakers on Tuesday voted narrowly in favour of legislation for a Brexit deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson clinched with the EU last week, but minutes later voted against his tight timetable for parliamentary approval.

That puts the ball back in the EU's court, after Mr Johnson was forced by opponents into asking the bloc for a delay until Jan 31. Mr Johnson had hoped to make his request redundant by passing the Brexit law fast enough to leave on time.

Here are questions and answers on what the other 27 member states will do following the latest twist in the Brexit drama.

Q Is there any way for a deal before Oct 31?

A Even if Mr Johnson gets his deal through the House of Commons in the coming days, it would still have to be approved by the European Parliament, which is sitting this week but not next.

An extraordinary session of the EU assembly could be called, but an EU official said on Tuesday that lawmakers will want time to scrutinise what is a very complex agreement and some will "smell an opportunity" to slam the brakes on Brexit.

Q Will the EU27 grant the delay?

A The EU27 have already agreed twice to postpone Brexit from the original deadline of March 29 this year. Frustration has mounted over the distraction of a process that has dragged on for 31/2 years since Britons voted in a referendum to leave the EU, and the bloc had earlier said its second extension would be its last.

 
 
 

However, the other EU members are unlikely to reject Britain's request for a delay. That is because while they are heartily sick of Brexit, they are also keen to avoid a disorderly no-deal departure on Oct 31 that would buffet their own economies and Britain's.

They are also determined not to take the blame for a damaging "hard Brexit".

Q Would there be conditions to an extension?

A France and other members of the 27 have made it clear in recent weeks that there needs to be a shift in Britain's political landscape for an extension to be granted. This could come from a general election or a new referendum.

It is important to remember that an extension must be approved by all 27 members of the remaining member states.

Q Will the extension be to Jan 31?

A The EU27 might grant a shorter period than what has been requested - as little as a month or even less to keep the pressure on Britain to approve Mr Johnson's deal.

Mr Anand Menon, director of think-tank UK In A Changing Europe and a Brexit expert, told Reuters that the EU could grant an extension until Jan 31, and tell London it could leave earlier if it was ready - a solution some refer to as a "flextension".

 
 

Q What about a longer extension?

A The bloc could go for the three months requested by Mr Johnson, but it may kick the can much further down the road: Six months or even a year could be on the cards if the EU decides it wants to move on with its own affairs and give Britain space to sort itself out.

A longer postponement might be possible if it was clear that either a general election or a new referendum was at hand.

However, a deadline for the EU is shaping around its next long-term budget from 2021, which will hang on whether Britain is staying or leaving. Some EU diplomats and officials say this means Britain must be in or out by the middle of next year.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 24, 2019, with the headline 'EU likely to approve Brexit extension, but in what form?'. Print Edition | Subscribe