Wednesday

22nd Sep 2021

Tusk tells May not to ignore anti-Brexit UK citizens

  • Donald Tusk welcoming Theresa May at the EU summit last week (Photo: Number 10 - Flickr)

EU Council president Donald Tusk warned the UK government on Wednesday (27 March) not to ignore the "increasing majority" of British people who wanted to remain in the EU - and told MEPs to be open to a long Brexit extension.

The EU-27 leaders last week agreed to give a two-pronged extension - to April 12 or May 22 respectively - to the UK to figure out its Brexit strategy.

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The UK parliament on Wednesday night will cast several "indicative votes" to narrow down the possibilities on how it wants to proceed with leaving the bloc, or possibly holding a second referendum or revoking Brexit entirely.

Tusk, speaking in Strasbourg, said the 12th of April date is the "new cliff-edge date" and that Britain still had a choice between a deal, no deal, a long extension or revoking of Article 50, the process for leaving the EU.

He also urged the UK to take into consideration the recent political momentum behind stopping Brexit.

"You cannot betray the six million people who signed the petition to revoke Article 50, the one million people who marched for a People's Vote, or the increasing majority of people who want to remain in the European Union," Tusk said.

The former Polish prime minister has hinted before that the UK should hold a second referendum. In 2016, 52 percent of British voters chose to leave the EU, whilst 48 percent opted to remain - prompting three years of paralysis and chaos in the UK government.

Tusk later tweeted that the European Parliament should be open to a long extension if Britain wanted to rethink its strategy.

Meanwhile, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs "it is up to Britain to decide one way or another", and "bear the consequences for the decisions it has taken".

"These are not trade negotiations, not bargaining that's going on here, it's not two sides making concessions, it is an exit process [...] The UK wants to leave the EU, the single market and the customs union it needs to bear the consequences for it. […] This choice has consequences, and UK needs to take responsibility for it," he told MEPs in Strasbourg.

That responsibility is getting heavier for hardcore Brexiteer MPs in the Conservative party, and British prime minister Theresa May as well, who are deeply mired in a political crisis in London.

In a highly-unusual move, lawmakers took control of Wednesday's parliamentary business.

MPs in London will vote on Wednesday evening on a series of 'Plan B' options for Brexit - although all are merely indicative and not binding on the government.

May is also rumoured on Wednesday to be poised to suggest a date for quitting as PM, as the price for getting her twice-defeated withdrawal agreement ratified in the Westminster parliament later this week.

The options for the parliament range from a much-closer alignment with the EU after Brexit than originally planned, or to leave without a deal, or revoke the entire process.

Even if MPs coalesce from across parties behind a single option - which is unlikely to happen - that does not mean Brexit is solved, as May will not be legally bound to follow their decision.

However, if EU officials suggest that if MPs get behind the UK remaining in the customs union - favoured by much of the opposition Labour party - it could be incorporated quickly in the political declaration attached to the withdrawal agreement.

The customs union, or single market option, would solve many of the issues around the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will become the EU's new external border with the UK after Brexit.

That is something opposition Labour MPs could support, and would not require a renegotiation of the Brexit deal that the EU has already ruled out. Labour will also support a confirmatory public vote to approve the Brexit deal.

Some of the most influential Brexiteers also seem to be turning: Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said he could support May's deal, if the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party can agree to the backstop arrangement to keep the border open on the island of Ireland.

"The numbers in parliament make it clear that all the other potential outcomes are worse and an awkward reality needs to be faced," Rees-Mogg wrote on Tuesday.

However, for its part, a DUP spokesperson said on Wednesday that "nothing has changed".

Former foreign minister Boris Johnson has also indicated that he could back the deal - but only if May agrees to go.

If May manages to push the deal through parliament at the third time of asking, by 29 March, Britain then has until 22 May to leave the EU.

If the deal fails, the UK needs to indicate by 12 April if it wants a longer extension, which would require holding EU elections in Britain, or possibly revoke the process, or leave without a deal.

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