EU grants Brexit extension until February next year

Jon Stone
AFP/Getty

The European Union has agreed to extend the Brexit deadline until February next year by approving a further extension of Article 50.

The delay was requested by Boris Johnson after MPs passed a law forcing him to avert a no deal at the end of October.

The decision to grant the extension was taken at a meeting of ambassadors representing the 27 remaining EU member states on Monday morning in Brussels.

It leaves the prime minister’s pledge to exit by 31 October in tatters – despite a commitment that he would take Britain out of the EU “do or die” on that date.

European Council president Donald Tusk described the delay as a “flextension”, saying in a statement on Monday morning: “The EU27 has agreed that it will accept the UK’s request for a Brexit flextension until 31 January 2020. The decision is expected to be formalised through a written procedure.”

The delay means that Britain will no longer crash out of the EU without a deal on Halloween if parliament does not approve the Brexit deal in time, as had previously been the case.

Under the terms of the EU treaties, the UK could leave before February if MPs approve the withdrawal agreement before the deadline is up. In that case, Brexit would take place on the first first day of a month after the withdrawal agreement is approved.

The extension was resisted by Emmanuel Macron’s France, which had argued that a shorter delay would put more pressure on Westminster to approve the deal Mr Johnson struck with Brussels just over a week ago.

Member states ultimately backed the longer extension on the basis that it was the length requested by Mr Johnson on the instruction of parliament. EU member states are loathe to be seen to be getting involved in internal UK political debates and felt the option was the most neutral response.

No summit will be required to approve the extension, with leaders signing it off via “written procedure”.

The European parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt said after the decision that he was “relieved finally no one died in a ditch” – a reference to previous comments by Mr Johnson.

He added: “Whether the UK’s democratic choice is revoke or an orderly withdraw, confirmed or not in a second referendum, the uncertainty of Brexit has gone on for far too long. This extra time must deliver a way forward.”

Mr Johnson’s revised withdrawal agreement passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons last week, but some diplomats fear that the narrow coalition of MPs in favour of passing it – which ranges from Labour rebels to Tory Brexiteers – may not hold up under scrutiny.

The government’s proposed timetable to pass the deal by 31 October without much parliamentary scrutiny – which would have been unprecedented for a major international treaty – was already shot down by MPs, who say the withdrawal agreement bill needs to be properly read and possibly revised before it is put into UK law.

The delay to 31 January 2020 also gives time for the UK to hold a general election, if parliament can agree to one. The government needs a two-thirds majority to call an early general election, though one could be held if the government lost a vote of no confidence by a simple majority.

In that latter case, the other parties would be given the opportunity to form a new government before an election was triggered – a delay that means a vote could not happen until next year.

The Brexit delay raises difficult questions for the government, which spent millions of pounds on an advertising campaigning publicising the 31 October date. The UK may also be required to nominate a new EU commissioner, something Mr Johnson has also always said he would never do.

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