EU pushes back Brexit; May now faces UK battle

British PM Theresa May speaks on the first day of an EU summit focused on Brexit, in Brussels, on March 21, 2019.
British PM Theresa May speaks on the first day of an EU summit focused on Brexit, in Brussels, on March 21, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

Brexit deadline on April 12 if MPs fail to back her plan, but door open for longer extension

Prime Minister Theresa May returned to London yesterday with a new Brexit timetable and now faces an uphill battle to persuade sceptical lawmakers at home to back her Brexit plan.

European leaders at a summit in Brussels on Thursday had agreed on two options to delay Brexit to avoid Britain's potentially chaotic divorce from the European Union in a week's time.

If Mrs May manages to get a deeply divided Parliament to approve her withdrawal deal next week after failing dismally on two earlier attempts, Britain will leave the EU on May 22, instead of the legal default date of March 29.

If the deal is rejected yet again, Britain can only postpone Brexit by two weeks to April 12, and it could still risk crashing out of the bloc without a deal in place.

Brussels, however, has left the door open for Mrs May to request a longer extension beyond April 12 if MPs do not back her plan. But this would require a decision on Britain's participation in the European Union's parliamentary elections six weeks later, in accordance with British election law.

The May 22 extension for Brexit is earlier than the June 30 deadline that Mrs May sought for the split ahead of her talks with the EU leaders. Nevertheless, it gives her a powerful lever over pro-Brexit hardliners, who face the choice of either backing her deal or staying in the EU for a longer period of time.

Speaking at a news conference late on Thursday night after EU leaders agreed on the extension, she said: "What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner."

 
 
 

She added: "Last night, I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do."

She was referring to a televised address she made from Downing Street on Wednesday night in which she implied that MPs were to blame for the Brexit impasse.

Her speech met with a fierce backlash from lawmakers, many of whom she will need to win over in order for her divorce deal - which was resoundingly rejected twice, by a historic margin in January, and again on March 12 - to get through Parliament. "I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision," Mrs May said.

As Mrs May flew back, MPs resumed the debate over Brexit after Speaker John Bercow granted an urgent question on the issue.

The European Council's final communique on the delay of Brexit was released late on Thursday night after an intense day of talks.

Addressing a news conference after the discussions ended, European Council President Donald Tusk said: "All options will remain open and the cliff-edge date will be delayed."

On how long a "long extension" would be, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: "Until the very end."

Agence France-Presse reported that once Mrs May left the room after securing the extension, French President Emmanuel Macron remarked that he had arrived for the meeting with the belief there was a 10 per cent chance she would succeed. But having heard from her, he said "I think there is a 5 per cent chance", to which Mr Tusk retorted: "You are very optimistic."

Meanwhile, a petition on Parliament's website urging the government to revoke Article 50 - the clause governing the country's withdrawal from the EU - had garnered more than three million signatures by yesterday evening despite the website crashing repeatedly due to a flood of signatures.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 23, 2019, with the headline 'EU pushes back Brexit; May now faces UK battle'. Print Edition | Subscribe