EU agrees to six-month Article 50 flextension

Prime Minister Theresa May gets Article 50 Extension until October 31. Credit: Shutterstock.

The European Union (EU) has agreed a compromise deal to give the United Kingdom (U.K.) an extension to Article 50, the legal mechanism for withdrawing from the EU, up to October 31 with a review scheduled to happen at the union’s regular summit, due in late June.

After five hours of debate the EU’s 27 member states thrashed out a flexible agreement that allows  the U.K. to leave the union after it has ratified a Withdrawal Agreement. And it also allows the U.K> to hold European Parliamentary elections in May if there is no ratification of Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal by May 22.

Failure to take part in European elections would mean the U.K. leaves the EU without a deal on 1 June. If May’s deal is ratified the U.K. will leave on the first day of the following month, for example, if the deal is ratified in April, Britain will leave on May 1.

The European Council was warned by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, not to allow a longer extension for fear of British Brexiteers disrupting EU business from within the union. However, with the EU keen to avoid a no deal Brexit, other council leaders were minded to agree a much longer extension up to March 2020. In anyevent, the October 31  flextension will allow the U.K. to exit the union earlier if necessary while also giving the Government more time to get its deal through Parliament.

European Council president Donald Tusk said, “This extension is as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected, but it’s still enough to find the best possible solution.

“Please do not waste this time.”

Tusk added that the extension to Article 50 was long enough to allow the U.K. to rethink its strategy or choose to “cancel Brexit altogether”.

In its declaration the European Council of Ministers set out the terms of the extension with the proviso that “Such an extension should last only as long as necessary and, in any event, no longer than 31 October 2019.”

More ominously the Council also emphasised that it would not allow the U.K. to hamper union business, following threats from Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees-Mogg, to disrupt the EU from within.

“The European Council underlines that the extension cannot be allowed to undermine the regular functioning of the Union and its institutions. If the UK is still a Member of the EU on 23-26 May 2019 and if it has not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May 2019, it must hold the elections to the European Parliament in accordance with Union law. If the United Kingdom fails to live up to this obligation, the withdrawal will take place on 1 June 2019,” said the council statement.

The agreement allows May enough time to put her deal to Parliament for a fourth time, but not enough time for another referendum or general election in the U.K. May looks set to be around for a while. There was a confidence vote against her in December 2018, instigated by the Brexiteer’s, the European Research Group (ERG), within the Conservative Party. But May won andparty rules state that another vote of confidence in May cannot be held for a year, so she can hold on at least until December 2019.

Brexit seeking Tories are, however, furious at May’s failure to achieve the withdrawal from the EU and are looking for ways to dislodge the Prime Minister. May has already agreed to go, once her deal is passed She has signalled that she will resign once that goal is achieved, but not before.

The complex situation in the House of Commons means that there is no expectation that the Democratic Unionist Party will vote for a deal that will include the backstop,which prevents a hard border between Northern and Southern Ireland. Hardcore Brexiteers want May out and will not support May’s deal in any form. May in this scenario must therefore appeal to the Labour Party for support to vote her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.

The Labour leadership would support May if it can get binding assurances on environmental concerns and workers rights, among other things, in any future deal. The problem for May is that her agreement with the EU included a non-binding, 26-page declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the U.K.. But it did not set out any concrete, legally binding, requirements. Those will come in future negotiations after the withdrawal element of the deal is agreed. If, however, May leaves after her deal passes through Parliament then any assurances she has given could be ignored by a new Tory leader.

Labour’s nightmare scenario is that May resigns and the Tories do not need to call a general election. They could simply elect a new leader from within their ranks. And that could lead to a hard Brexiteer, such as Boris Johnson or the former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab, taking control of Government and pushing for a no deal Brexit.

As a result of the flextension the agreement with the EU has led to a little more time and some flexibility for the U.K. but there is little relief from the tensions in Parliament.

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Nick Savvides, Staff Writer

Nick came to FreightWaves in December 2018 from Fairplay, a shipping market publication. He covers the shipping, freight and logistics industry in Europe. Since starting his career as a journalist in 1990, Nick has worked for a number of significant freight publications abroad, including International Freighting Weekly, the online news service for Containerisation International, ICIS, the chemical industry reporting service, as well as Seatrade in Greece. Nick also worked as a freelance journalist writing for Lloyd’s List, The Observer, The Express and The European newspapers among others before joining Seatrade Newsweek in Athens.

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