The EU will not have been surprised to see Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement rejected again. While it would have clearly preferred the UK to opt for an orderly exit on 22 May, Parliament’s decision to reject the deal again means that the responsibility for a no deal Brexit will be seen in Europe as the sole responsibility of British MPs. However, EU leaders now need to pencil in another showdown with the Prime Minister on 10 April. While they will try to help her, Theresa May will be met with a series of clear demands.
The UK and EU27 could agree to a one-off extension until the end of June or later – but not without the UK holding European Parliament elections.
There are two reasons for this. The first is a legal one. As a member state, the UK is legally required to hold European Parliament elections – the EU Commission could launch an infringement procedure against the UK for failing to do so. Meanwhile, the UK would be denying UK and EU citizens in the UK the right to stand and vote in EU elections. This could be challenged in EU courts.
The second is political. The EU27 are nervous that the UK would request yet another extension at the end of June or worse, stop the process all together. If the UK did decide to remain a member state past July, but had not taken part in the EU elections, then the new EU Parliament – without British seats – would not be able to carry out its activities. This is also why the date of 12 April was selected.
There might be a way around EU elections. The EU could introduce treaty reform which would say that a departing member state did not need to participate in EU elections or have any representatives in the European Parliament. But this is to misunderstand the EU. The EU27 already rejected treaty change when David Cameron sought his emergency breaks ahead of the UK’s EU referendum. With positions hardening, it is unlikely that the EU would agree to last-minute treaty change just to satisfy the UK.
The EU27 will want to ensure that a no deal Brexit does not interfere with European Parliament elections
The EU elections in May are hugely important to the EU. Not only do EU citizens elect the new European Parliament, but the outcome will also determine the make-up of the new European Commission in the autumn. So, member states will want to make sure that a no deal Brexit does not interfere with European Parliament elections.
Their message will be clear: if the UK is heading toward a no deal, then this would have to take place either in April, before the campaigning begins, or at some point in June, before the new MEPs take up their seats. There is no chance that member states will allow the UK to crash out on 22 May, on the eve of the elections. This is another reason why the 12 April deadline was imposed.
The EU27 would probably accept a UK request for a long extension – especially if the UK agreed to hold EU elections. After all, they have been clear that they do not want a no deal. But there would be conditions. The first is that an extension must serve to reach a decision. The upcoming indicative votes might just provide a glimpse into the kind of Brexit deal the House of Commons would support, and if the UK needed a general election or another public vote to get that through then the EU27 would regard that as grounds to allow the UK longer to reach a decision.
Secondly, the EU would demand assurances that the UK would not be obstructive in other EU discussions, like those on how to spend the seven-year EU budget. While these are not conditions the EU27 can demand on record, they will be forcefully made behind closed doors.
The rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement has brought one small victory: the EU can no longer be blamed for a no deal
The EU27 have repeatedly said that they want the UK to leave in an orderly manner. Last week, they agreed to two short extensions: which one the UK went for would depend on a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement this week. They also relaxed the terms of EU ratification by saying that the UK would simply need to pass the Withdrawal Agreement, not the Political declaration, to leave the EU. This was clever: irrespective of whether the UK leaves with a deal or not on 12 April, 22 May or beyond, the EU27 will maintain that they have gone as far as they could.
By agreeing to an extension and relaxing the terms for ratification, the EU put the ball firmly back in the UK’s court. The blame game will fall firmly on Westminster, not on Brussels.