Brexit Extension Looks Possible as Deadline Looms

By James Carstensen | February 27, 2019 | 8:18pm EST
British Prime Minister Theresa May meets with E.U. Council President Donald Tusk during an Arab-European Summit in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt on February 24, 2019. (Photo by Stefan Rousseau - Pool/Getty Images)

Berlin ( – A month ahead of the March 29 deadline, British Prime Minister Theresa May has aired the possibility of delaying the date on which her country will formally leave the European Union – but the decision will be up to the House of Commons.

Following hasty meetings with E.U. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May returned home Tuesday to announce to lawmakers her plan for three consecutive votes – for a deal, for no deal, or to delay Brexit.

May said any extension would be a “short, time-limited delay” of about one month, and emphasized that her goal remained to “make every effort to negotiate an agreement” by the March 29 deadline.

An extension would require the unanimous agreement of all 27 E.U. member states, and some leaders have already signaled potential support.

“I believe that in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution,” the E.U.’s other top bureaucrat, European Council President Donald Tusk, told reporters during an E.U.-Arab summit in Egypt.

“The less time there is until March 29, the greater is the likelihood of an extension,” Tusk said, citing European businesses’ concerns about a chaotic exit under a no-deal situation.

Merkel also indicated support for the idea.

“If Britain needs more time, then of course we will not refuse,” she said during a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on Wednesday.

Macron, however, was more critical, saying that he would only consider approving an extension if Britain presented a clear plan. “It’s time for the British to make a decision,” he said.

May’s three-step plan would see lawmakers vote first on whether or not to accept her current Brexit agreement with the E.U. The House of Commons last month rejected the agreement by 230 votes, reportedly the biggest loss for a sitting government in the country’s modern history.

If lawmakers again vote no, another vote will be scheduled for a day later, on whether or not to leave the E.U. without a deal. And if the Commons rejects the leave-without-a-deal option, a third and final vote will be held on March 14, on asking the E.U. to temporarily extend Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, thus allowing for the temporary delay.

The proposal comes amid mounting political pressure on May, who survived a no-confidence vote in December after failing to win concessions from E.U. leaders.

A major obstacle in Brexit deal negotiations has been over the so-called “Irish backstop.” Many British politicians strongly opposed an E.U.’s plan to set up post-Brexit border controls between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which is and will remain an E.U. member.

Matthew Crosston, senior doctoral faculty in the School of Security and Global Studies at the American Military University, said that a vote to delay Brexit appears the most likely outcome.

“The ‘delay’ vote may win simply because so much of Britain understands it really cannot pull back from the ledge – but they still don’t wish to jump,” he said.

Crosston added that May’s struggles with securing her Brexit deal were not a reflection on the contents of the deal, but an indication that she has become unpopular for her handling of the entire situation.

Unlike Merkel and Tusk, others in the E.U. have indicated a more critical view on delaying Brexit.

The E.U.’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the British would have to justify the extra time with a clear plan.

“We do not need more time, we need decisions,” he told a French radio station on Wednesday.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte was also not optimistic.

“If the U.K. asks for a delay, the E.U. will ask: what do you want to do with it?” he said, telling the BBC Britain should “come to a conclusion and close the deal.”

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that a vote for an extension was the most likely outcome due to increasing fear of a “no deal” Brexit.

“A long extension creates a complication in relation to the European elections [in May], but that’s a small complication relative to the impact on our economy,” Varadkar said at the E.U.-Arab summit.

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