Brexit Brief: Cooling Off Period

Last night, EU leaders agreed on delaying Brexit up to 31 October following the prime minister’s request for an extension until 30 June. Now, the future relationship is dependent on progress of talks in London. In other words, Brexit Brief readers should expect regular updates indefinitely.

What happened in Brussels?

The leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states, having heard a request from the UK for an extension until the end of June, instead offered an extension to 31 October. EU member states were overwhelmingly in favour of an extension, at least until the end of the year, but French President Emmanuel Macron held out for an extension of mere weeks until the October compromise was struck in the early hours. In yet another Brexit first, the UK government left an emergency Brexit summit more popular than the French government, with some diplomats and officials astounded at the French president’s strategy. One described it as being like “hostages” to a “domestic show”.

What happened in Westminster?

Westminster is — by way of several dramatic late-night votes — exactly where it was last week. Cross-party talks between the Labour and Conservative leaderships have so far yielded no breakthroughs, just much gnashing of teeth from Conservatives angry about cooperating with what they see as a dangerous Marxist heading a party bent on a softer Brexit and many Labour MPs urging a ‘confirmatory’ referendum. There was no movement towards a customs union, with Labour insisting upon its inclusion and Conservatives insisting upon its exclusion. May has also been unable to quell Labour fears that any government promises could be undone by the next Conservative leader. If these talks fail, parliament will likely be given control  — either by binding indicative votes or by getting relatively free rein to amend the bill implementing the withdrawal agreement as they see fit.

What happens next?

The EU has given the UK a chance to work out a coherent Brexit strategy that can secure parliamentary backing and avoid all the drama and disruption of no-deal Brexit. What that strategy will actually look like is not yet clear, with all sides  — soft Brexiters, remainers, no-dealers and everyone in between — all seeing a chance to continue pushing their goal. The first big test will be the European elections. Conservative Brexiteers had hoped against hope that the UK could avoid these results, and now both the ardently pro-Remain parties (such as the Lib Dems and Change UK, formerly The Independent Group) and the ardently pro-Brexit ones (such as UKIP and the new Brexit Party) are hoping to do well.

And when will Brexit happen? 

Brexit could, under the terms of this “flexible extension”, happen before 31 October if parliament actually agrees to something. Could there be another extension? Europe’s leaders sound reluctant, unless it is for a technical purpose such as holding a referendum. A delayed no-deal is still possible but looks less likely — a delayed delay too. But even if a deal is passed, the UK and the EU will only have until 31 December 2020 to work out the terms for a future relationship. And London still hasn’t decided what it wants out of it.

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