Talk of Brexit Delay Sharpens Political Calculations

Demonstrators hold placards and flags at a pro-Brexit rally in London on Dec. 9, 2018. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

(CN) – The politics of Brexit are entering a new dramatic phase as Great Britain mulls the possibility of seeking to delay its exit from the European Union.

Under growing pressure, embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday promised the House of Commons the chance to delay Brexit if her much-maligned EU-friendly divorce deal is struck down on March 12 for a second time. Unless there is a delay, Britain will leave the EU on March 29.

The chance of a delay is now being viewed as both a threat and opportunity by every side involved in this game of political chess.

On one side, there are those now hoping a delay will lead to Brexit being nixed altogether. This could happen if a second referendum on Brexit is forced.

That’s the hope of many in the opposition Labour Party and their allies, such as the Scottish National Party. A large segment of the British population, too, hopes to get a chance to reject Brexit in a new referendum.

For May, her threat of delaying Brexit is putting pressure on many in Parliament to back the deal she drew up with the EU or face watching Brexit get scrapped altogether.

There are signs her strategy may be working. Hard-line Conservatives, who say her deal is too favorable to the EU, may be moderating their tough stance.

A chief target is an anti-EU and pro-free market group of Conservatives gathered under the European Research Group. This group, often described as an influential “party within the Tory party,” can be likened to the Freedom Caucus in the Republican Party in the United States. Its members, known as Brexiters, pushed to get Britain out of the EU and they led the referendum campaign in 2016 that persuaded a majority of Britons to vote to leave.

In recent days, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the group’s spokesman and Parliament member, has suggested he would back May’s deal if she can get the EU to add a legally binding appendix setting a deadline on how long Northern Ireland is aligned with EU rules and laws.

To appease Brexiters, May has been seeking assurances from the EU that Northern Ireland will not be tied into EU rules and laws indefinitely. As it stands, her deal includes an indefinite “backstop,” as it is called, that says Northern Ireland will be tied to EU rules and laws until a future agreement is worked out. The backstop is meant to ensure the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland remains free of border checks.

Previously, Rees-Mogg had insisted that the deal’s Northern Irish arrangement be scrapped altogether.

“Is the European Research Group backing down?” ran a headline in the Financial Times newspaper.

The article continued: “Are the hard Brexiters finally warming towards backing the prime minister’s Brexit deal?”

The Financial Times speculated, along with much of the British press, that Brexiters like Rees-Mogg may be reconsidering their tough stance because of the threat of Brexit being delayed.

“The Brexiters now know that if her deal is overturned again in the next two weeks, Brexit will be delayed – with no certainty about where things go from there,” the Financial Times wrote.

A major concern for hardliners is that if May’s deal is defeated, Labour will propose Parliament vote for a second referendum.

On Wednesday, European leaders added even more pressure on British politicians to accept May’s deal by saying they might not accept Brexit being delayed. For Brexit to be delayed, all 27 EU member states must agree to an extension, and this gives European leaders a lot of clout in this phase of Brexit.

At a news conference, French President Emmanuel Macron said he would not necessarily vote to allow a delay.

“If the British need more time, we can examine a request for a delay if it is justified by new British choices,” Macron said, according to the Irish Times. “But we can in no event accept an extension without a clear understanding of the objective being pursued.”

Macron did not specify what he meant, but he was viewed as suggesting a delay should be granted only if Britain decides to hold a new referendum.

“As our negotiator Michel Barnier says, we don’t need time,” Macron said. “We need decisions. The time has come for the British to make choices and give us what we deserve as partners, friends and allies, that is to say, a clear vision and a shared plan for the future.”

Although the EU wants May’s deal to be approved, it may be wary of allowing Britain to delay Brexit for very long.

“Even if the prime minister is forced to ask for an extension, it is not a foregone conclusion that the EU side will readily agree to any option,” wrote Larissa Brunner and Fabian Zuleeg of the European Policy Centre, a think tank.

Legally, if Britain delays leaving the EU past the end of June, it would be required to allow its citizens to vote in upcoming European elections in May. But European leaders may not want Britons voting for a number of reasons.

If Britain were to vote, it might increase the share of anti-EU members in the next EU Parliament, the analysts said. This would be unwelcome for many pro-European leaders already worried about an increase in anti-EU members due to a rise of nationalist parties across Europe.

Also, 27 of the 73 seats Britain holds in the European Parliament have been assigned to other member states. The rest of Britain’s seats are being held in reserve in case other countries join the EU.

The EU also might oppose a long delay because that could mean Britain being required to contribute funds to the EU budget.

Britain would be “very tempted to make these conditional on a Brexit deal,” the analysts said. “This would be unacceptable to the EU.”

Brunner and Zuleeg also said a long extension would diminish the EU’s power to get the present deal passed. Under the deal May and the EU agreed to, Britain would remain partially in line with EU rules and laws.

“The withdrawal agreement has the best chance of getting through the UK Parliament if [members of Parliament] face a binary choice, staring down the cliff edge: the deal, or a chaotic no-deal exit,” the analysts wrote.  

They also said that if the EU allows a long extension then it could be seen as desperate to avoid Britain leaving without a deal and that would strengthen the hand of Brexiters like Rees-Mogg.

“The Brexit negotiations are a game of chicken, with both sides trying to convince the other that they are not willing to back down,” the analysts said. “Granting a 21-month extension would be seen as a signal of weakness on the part of the EU and it would cost Brussels leverage and credibility in future negotiations with the UK.”

May said she does not want Brexit to be delayed and that any delay should be short in order to avoid Britain being forced to take part in the European elections.

The UK Office of National Statistics said Thursday that net migration into Britain from other EU countries has dropped to the lowest level since 2009, a sign the uncertainty over Brexit has discouraged workers from moving there.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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