Thursday

21st Jan 2021

EU leaders ponder long vs short Brexit delay

EU-27 leaders will discuss at their emergency summit on Wednesday evening (10 April) whether a long or a short extension of the Brexit date will put more pressure on British lawmakers to ratify the withdrawal agreement negotiated between the bloc and the UK government.

The meeting comes after British prime minister Theresa May requested a second delay of the UK's withdrawal from the EU, until 30 June, to give time for her talks with opposition Labour to get a possible majority in the House of Commons for the existing negotiated Brexit deal.

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The EU-27 are open to a delay, if the UK holds European elections at the end of May. The UK has already started legal preparations to hold EU elections and secure a Brexit extension.

But member states are divided whether it is a short or a long delay that will spook MPs into ratifying the divorce deal, which secures an orderly withdrawal by managing citizens rights, plus the UK's outstanding payments to the EU and keeping the border open on the island of Ireland.

"This is not an issue of minority and majority [among the EU-27], this is a tactical issue, […] this is up to a political judgement of the leaders to come to a common position," a senior EU diplomat said on Wednesday, adding that a "handful" of countries support short extension, but that they are not ruling out a long one.

German chancellor Angela Merkel said that May's Conservatives and Labour should be given "a reasonable amount of time" to sort out Brexit, and that "it could well be that it is a longer extension than has been requested" by May.

On Wednesday evening, the EU-27 leaders will hear from May first on her expectations and assessment for the way ahead, and will want to hear assurances from the British premier that the UK will not stand in the way of EU decision-making in the next months.

May banished from room

Then May will leave the room, but stay in the council building where discussions will take place, and the EU-27 will talk among themselves. The meeting could go on late into the night.

The main issue dividing member states is how they perceive the risks of the UK's potentially obstructionist behaviour during the extension.

Some member states, such as France, would want to see strong guarantees that the UK will not block key EU decision, for instance when choosing the new presidents of the EU commission and council, and will not stall talks on the EU's long-term budget.

However, it is legally impossible to curb the rights of a member state, even if it is on its way out of the bloc.

'Sincere cooperation'

May has said in her letter requesting an extension that the UK will "continue to act a constructive and responsible member state", essentially pledging to "sincere cooperation", a term used in the EU treaty to make sure all member states seek collaboration and common positions.

Some member states are concerned that hardcore Brexiteer Conservative MPs - such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who earlier this week called for Britain to obstruct EU policies - might force the UK government to act in bad faith.

However, those EU countries arguing for a long extension see it as unlikely, pointing out that EU legislation will come to a halt due to the election for most of the year, and the top EU jobs can be decided by a qualified majority of member states.

A decision on the EU's long-term budget, which requires unanimity, is unlikely to come before the end of the year, even if the EU commission is pushing for an agreement by October.

EU sources also argue that if the UK wants to have a future trade deal with the EU, it cannot afford to upset its future negotiating partners, the EU-27.

EU leaders want to make sure that they cannot be blamed for a no-deal Brexit, which is no-one's preferred option, but want to be able to control the Brexit timeline.

"It is about time we take control of the length of the extension, and not only decide on the extension requested by the UK PM," said the senior source.

EU officials also, however, warn the UK against going for a no-deal scenario and throwing away the withdrawal agreement, saying that sorting out the key elements of the deal - citizens' rights, financial settlement, and the Irish border - would remain to be the starting points for any negotiations on a future trade deal.

Neighbouring EU countries on the English Channel will nevertheless hold a special meeting ahead of the summit to coordinate preparations for a no-deal Brexit, under the chairmanship of Belgian prime minister Charles Michel.

Before leaders gathered in Brussels, various extension dates have been floated by diplomats and EU officials, with some arguing for the 30 June date, others weighing on a delay until the end of the year, or until the end of the first quarter of 2020.

The EU would remain flexible, meaning the UK could leave after MPs ratified the Brexit deal, before the end of the extension period.

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