PM May’s announcement that the vote would once again be postponed was greeted with muted frustration, as MEPs and member states alike urged the UK Government to make progress in implementing the Agreement before the end of the negotiating period mandated by Article 50 on the 29th of March.
In truth, very few observers would have predicted at the outset that a no deal Brexit would remain a distinct possibility less than four weeks from the UK’s departure date. The delay has meant that EU27 member states began to ramp up their preparations for a no deal Brexit in February, with all member states passing legislation tackling the specific problems a no deal Brexit would create. The European Commission has also been busy preparing for such a scenario and has taken on the role of coordinating the responses of member states to ensure that the EU is ready for all eventualities that might arise from a no deal Brexit.
While preparations for a no deal Brexit were being carried out at national level in EU member states, the UK media was awash with reports that the UK Government was deep in negotiations with the Commission about altering the parts of the Withdrawal Agreement detailing the so-called backstop on Northern Ireland.
The EU’s settled position since late 2018 had been that the Withdrawal Agreement was a closed text, having been negotiated by both the UK and EU representatives. The EU27 believed that any reopening of that text would only serve to undermine the unity it had built around Ireland and the wider agreement (including the contentious issue of Gibraltar), and that ultimately there could be no guarantee that any changes made to the text would be acceptable to Conservative hardliners in any case.
Instead, the Commission and the EU have been in talks to come to an agreement on a clarifying text which would make clear that both parties intend to solve the problem Brexit creates with regard to Northern Ireland in the future UK-EU backstop. If this can be achieved the backstop will never need to come into operation.
Any clarifying text agreed by the UK and EU is likely to be published in advance of the vote on the 12th of March. Should MPs vote through the Withdrawal Agreement, many on the EU side believe the UK will require a short extension to the Article 50 negotiating process in order to adopt the subsequent implementing legislation.
Should MPs reject the Agreement, PM May has confirmed they will then be invited to vote for or against a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It is expected that, in that scenario, MPs will vote against a ‘no deal’. Should that be the case, MPs will then be asked to vote in favour of extending Article 50.
The upshot of this is that, in almost all scenarios (barring MPs voting in favour of ‘no deal’), the EU is preparing for the UK to request an extension to the period mandated by Article 50. This means that the UK would not leave the EU on March 29th, but at a later date.
It has been reported that PM May is in favour of a short extension period of three months, which would mean that the UK could avoid taking part in May’s European elections. Many in the EU are now preparing for just that eventuality.
However, should MPs reject the Withdrawal Agreement and a ‘no deal’ Brexit as expected, they will still not have voted in favour of any positive outcome and a longer extension may be required.
While some in the Commission and Parliament fear the disruption UK participation would undoubtedly bring to the European election cycle, many member states are now starting to consider that a longer transition of up to 21 months may be the only way of avoiding a ‘no deal’ Brexit while providing the UK Government and Parliament enough time to consider (or reconsider) how it envisages the UK’s future in Europe.
Whatever the outcome, March promises to be a pivotal month in shaping the UK’s permanent future and relationship with its European partners.