The UK is set to leave the EU on 29 March, when the two-year Article 50 countdown ends. But will that really be the date we leave?
Even if the Prime Minister gets backing from Parliament for her deal, she’ll have just days to get through the legislation necessary to ratify the deal. If MPs demand a different deal, there will simply not be time to negotiate it.
If an extension is inevitable, the coming days will decide the crucial question “for how long?” But the Prime Minister will also need to answer the question “for what?”
If the Prime Minister gets her deal through before 29 March, she will still need to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is unlikely to whistle through Parliament unopposed.
The legislation required to implement Maastricht Treaty took over 40 parliamentary sitting days. The Treaty of Lisbon took 25 days. The Government has only two sitting weeks left to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.
But the Prime Minister could ask for a few weeks extension to just get an approved deal onto the UK statute book, without pressurising Parliament to do everything with unseemly haste. The EU, if it meant ratifying the deal as it stands, would almost certainly have no issue in agreeing to such an extension.
This short three-week extension is not enough time to do anything more than finalise ratification. Any further tweaks to the deal would require a longer extension.
There’s a problem, though – the European Parliament elections are taking place between 23–26 May. Juncker confirmed that any extension that goes beyond those dates would require the UK to elect MEPs (the EU are guarding against the UK continuing to extend and ending up unrepresented in the European Parliament).
In the UK, the prospect of organising and running European elections (with the potential for political point-scoring) during an extension, is likely to be sufficiently painful to encourage the Government to avoid it as far as possible.
An extension until the end of May could in theory allow the two sides to reopen elements of the deal. But the EU has stood firm for the last two months; it could quite easily do the same for two more. The UK might have more luck if it wanted to redraft the Political Declaration, but that is only likely to win over some Labour and Tory backbenchers – it won’t crack the DUP/ERG nut.
If the Prime Minister wanted to win back those MPs, she might need to commit to spend the extra two months getting the house (or border) ready for a no deal Brexit. It is possible that the EU might want to have the breathing space to do the same – its appetite for more clarifications and tweaks may be running out.
The EU looks less than keen on conceding an extension which simply means months more of arguing about the backstop. Some EU members seem to think the deadlock in London would need longer to sort out.
Any extension to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement would likely take the date of Brexit beyond the summer, possibly beyond 2019.
The UK would need to organise European Parliament elections, but in return might get an opportunity to try and address some of the more fundamental concerns in Westminster. And a long extension could open space for public consultation, as suggested by some former Prime Ministers such as Gordon Brown and John Major.
The extra time could also allow for negotiations on the future relationship – or, at least, to come up with a much more detailed version of the Political Declaration. It could require an extension that comes close in length to the planned 21-month transition, but the UK could prove the backstop is not necessary and assure MPs worried that they are being asked to vote for a ‘blind Brexit’.
But the political consequences of a long delay could be significant – possibly fatal – for the Prime Minister.
The Government’s revealed preference has been to kick the can down the road whenever possible. With just days left, it looks like a matter of time before the Prime Minister asks for a bit more road.