(CN) – European leaders rescued the United Kingdom from crashing out of the European Union on Wednesday night by once again approving a delay to Brexit, the unpredictable and chaotic political drama that’s left Britain sharply divided.
The European Council agreed to give British Prime Minister Theresa May until Oct. 31 to work out how, and even whether, Great Britain will leave the EU. This is the second time Brexit has been delayed. The new extension will be reviewed at the end of June.
Wednesday’s Brexit extension was needed to prevent Britain from crashing out of the EU on Friday without a deal. Economists have warned that leaving without spelling out the terms of the separation could cause major economic damage.
Since November, May has been unable to get the divorce deal she thrashed out with the EU past a bitterly divided House of Commons. Critics say her deal leaves Britain too closely tied to EU rules and laws, and thus goes against the core reasons 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU in a June 2016 referendum.
Her biggest hurdle has been stiff opposition from within her own Conservative Party and hardline political allies in Northern Ireland. May’s latest ploy has been to see if she can win the support of the opposition Labour Party.
Britain was initially scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 with or without a deal. But meeting that deadline became impossible after May suffered a series of humiliating losses in Parliament. She got EU leaders to give her until Friday to get her deal passed, but Parliament voted against her deal again at the end of March, forcing her to seek this second delay.
In what the British press described as a “begging tour,” May met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron this week to win support for another delay.
Allowing Britain to remain temporarily within the EU carries political risks for EU leaders.
Unless May is able to get her deal through Parliament soon, Britain will be forced to take part in European elections at the end of May.
In this scenario, anti-EU British politicians could become candidates and win seats in the European Parliament, something many in Europe are wary of. Europe is in the grip of a far-right and anti-EU populist wave and there are fears that far-right candidates may win a substantial number of seats in the European Parliament.
“We need to be absolutely sure that the U.K. is not going to disrupt the work of the European Union,” said Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch politician and deputy to the European Parliament’s lead Brexit spokesman, speaking on BBC. “It cannot be that we will be held hostage by the U.K. for who knows – months, maybe a few years even.”
Another risk for EU leaders is that May is forced out of office and replaced by an anti-EU prime minister who could cause the EU a new set of problems. By delaying Brexit until the end of October, Britain’s role in EU affairs will be limited.
In Britain, pro-Brexit politicians are outraged at the prospect of Britain taking part in the EU elections and they are suggesting that if that happens British parliamentarians and diplomats who are sent to Brussels should seek to sabotage the work of the EU.
“If a long extension leaves us stuck in the EU we should be as difficult as possible,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, a Tory member and leader of a hardline pro-Brexit group in Parliament, on Twitter.
He said Britain’s politicians should work to obstruct and veto EU plans. Rees-Mogg is opposed to the EU’s efforts to expand its budget, build an EU army and become more integrated. Hardline Tories like him would like Britain to leave the EU without a deal and are now worried Brexit will not happen.
During Wednesday’s meeting, which was held in private, Macron was the most emphatic in expressing concerns about Britain’s potential role as a disruptive factor, according to news reports. He reportedly argued against a long Brexit delay during the late-night talks. The European Council’s decision was announced after midnight in Brussels.
“I believe deeply that we are carrying out a European rebirth, and I don’t want the subject of Brexit to get in the way of that,” Macron told reporters prior to the meeting.
Still, this new Brexit delay does little to bring clarity to what is going to happen with Brexit. Parliament is split and it has not been able to reach a majority on what it prefers.
There are several possible outcomes. Britain could leave the EU with a deal that keeps it closely aligned to the bloc; it could hold a second referendum to let voters decide whether to leave the EU or not; it could remain in the EU by revoking its decision to leave; and it could still crash out of the bloc without a deal.
European Council President Donald Tusk said what happens during the extension is “entirely in the U.K.’s hands.”
“It can still ratify the withdrawal agreement, in which case the extension will be terminated. It can also reconsider the whole Brexit strategy. That might lead to changes in the political declaration, but not in the withdrawal agreement. Until the end of this period, the U.K. will also have the possibility to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether,” Tusk said in a statement issued very early Thursday.
After promising Britain will remain “a close friend and trusted ally in the future,” Tusk offered an admonition.
“Let me finish with a message to our British friends: This extension is as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected, but it’s still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time,” Tusk said.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)