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View from Brussels: Meaningful Brexit delays still to be decided

Just how long is a piece of Brexit string? After last week’s Brexit developments in which Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal deal was voted down in Parliament again, all minds will be focused now on possibly granting the UK more time to get its house in order.

The minor tweaks and assurances secured by May after her withdrawal agreement was defeated by a massive margin the first time around proved to be in vain on 13 March, as British lawmakers again said it was inadequate.

That was followed by another vote which saw MPs reject the notion that the UK might leave the EU without any deal in place.

After House speaker John Bercow said earlier today (18 March) that May would not be able to put the same unchanged agreement to a vote again, all signs point to a Brexit delay.

While MPs might indeed still approve the deal on the table, it is far more likely that a vote will be held on extending the period of time granted under Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty.

The way things stand, the UK is still poised to exit the EU on 29 March 2019 as planned, despite the ‘no no-deal’ vote, unless May revokes Article 50 altogether or asks the other member states for an extension.

Granting more time will need a unanimous decision from the other 27 countries and many of their leaders have already indicated that they will only consider it if the UK makes clear what it will do with the extra months, or even years.

That is partly because the EU elections are due to take place at the end of May and the UK will be legally obligated to take part if it is still scheduled to be a member of the EU after the summer.

Prime ministers, presidents and EU officials are worried that Britain could elect a euro-sceptic cohort of MEPs if she were still a part of the bloc on a temporary basis or exercise its veto power in a non-constructive way if relations sour further.

How much time is enough?

Both EU Council chief Donald Tusk - of ‘special place in hell’ fame - and the German government are largely in favour of a long extension, which could see the idea of the UK actually leaving the EU peter out altogether.

France is playing its cards far closer to its chest and there are even rumours coming out of Paris that Emmanuel Macron will invoke the spirit of Charles De Gaulle and veto the request, essentially condemning the UK to a swift Brexit.

The French president has made it clear that he sees the start of the EU’s next legislative cycle as a chance to renew the way the Union does business. A Brexit hangover does not feature in his plans.

All will probably be revealed at the meeting of EU leaders in Brussels on 21 and 22 March. Most Central and Eastern European countries will be willing to help the UK out, but Macron’s manoeuvring will prove key.

Meanwhile, industry has started to come out in favour of a longer extension to protect the country’s investment attractiveness. The Chemical Industries Association, for example, has said that a “meaningful” period of extra time is needed in order to dissuade fears that it is just delaying a no-deal scenario and prolonging uncertainty.

Fresh measures adopted over the last few weeks by the EU about dealing with no-deal have taken the edge off that Brexit uncertainty slightly. There will be basic road connectivity whatever happens, meaning hauliers and bus companies will be able to keep operating. Work is ongoing to provide the same for rail companies.

Ultimately, the Macron wildcard option aside, if May comes to Brussels and asks for a long extension, she will probably get it, as there is still enough goodwill on this side of the Channel to be spent on keeping the UK within the European fold.

It will all become more problematic and unpredictable if the PM only comes cap in hand asking for a few months.

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