On 10 April,
at an extraordinary European Council summit, the EU approved the UK’s request
to postpone the date of its departure from the bloc to 31 October at the latest.
While the British application demonstrates the intensity of the UK dispute on
Brexit, the EU’s disputes reveal growing differences of opinion and interests
among its 27 Member States.
The conclusions of the EUCO summit state that the UK will leave the EU by 31 October at the latest. The postponement period may end sooner if the is ratified since it would come into force at the beginning of the month following the finalisation of the procedure. The EU ruled out renegotiation of the agreement or opening talks on EU-UK future relations. The document also reserves the EU the right to continue its work on preparing for Brexit and future arrangements that exclude the UK. However, Britain will otherwise retain full membership rights and obligations during the period, including the right of unilateral withdrawal of the Brexit agreement. The UK also now has the obligation to hold European Parliament (EP) elections under the pain of exclusion from the EU on 1 July. A political commitment by the UK to “constructive and responsible” cooperation with the EU-27 in the period in question was also noted.
For the EU, the UK’s duty to participate in the European elections is crucial because it suspends the redistribution of some of Britain’s current seats to the other EU Member States (27 out of 72). British MPs will participate in decisions on the distribution of positions in the EP, the structure of the 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF), and the formation of the European Commission (e.g., public hearings of candidates). The new departure date, however, excludes the UK’s participation in the final approval of the Commission, EUCO president, and the MFF. For the UK, the most impactful legal and institutional consequences are related to the European election campaigns initiated on 8 April. The campaigns’ legal framework greatly helps radical parties on the UK political scene (e.g., UKIP, The Brexit Party, and Change UK) by strengthening their visibility (broadcast time), structures (financial contributions), and representation (seats).
The extension alleviates the risk of a “no-deal” Brexit on 12 April; however, it creates a number of other challenges for both the UK and EU. In the UK, it increases the crisis in ordinary decision-making procedures based on the division of power between the executive and the legislative, the collegial responsibility of the government and shadow cabinet, and party discipline. The government is losing the ability to manage Brexit and hold effective dialogue with the EU. In addition, the ratification of the withdrawal agreement undermines the Tory parliamentary coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party while the Conservative-Labour negotiations remain undermined by the present and prospective electoral rivalry. The elections to EP on 23 May will prolong the present local election campaigns in England and Northern Ireland (2 May) in the face of growing support for the radical parties. This impacts the political dynamics since the European elections’ proportional representation mechanism favours smaller players.
The majority of Member States supported the proposal by EUCO President Donald Tusk regarding granting an extension of the exit date until at least the end of this year. A minority opted for the date of 30 June, proposed by UK Prime Minister Theresa May. France, though, threatened to reject the UK application as unjustified. In the end, French President Emmanuel Macron managed to limit UK influence on the formation of the new power balance in the EU after the European elections while also strengthening his credentials as the leader of liberal Europe. States supporting a long extension managed to protect their economic interests threatened by a “no-deal” Brexit. The dispute over exit date, whose resolution focused on the leaders of France and Germany, demonstrated the key role of these countries in the EU’s post-Brexit balance of power. The compromise, however, also reflects the dominance in the EU of an unwillingness to provoke a “no-deal” Brexit against the UK’s will.
The extension enables a leadership contest in the UK Tory party and change of PM. There is also the possibility of conducting a snap election or referendum. The polls, however, point to a loss of voters by the two major parties and a high probability of another hung parliament. At present, the ratification of the withdrawal agreement is only possible in case of either a revision of the “backstop”, or softening of the Brexit model, but at the price of a split in both leading parties. Prime Minister May announced a fourth attempt to ratify the agreement for after Easter and further indicative votes in parliament in the event of its failure. Moreover, a “no-deal” Brexit on 31 October remains the legal default. The UK’s participation in the European elections will temporarily strengthen the position of the EU parliamentary ECR group (to which Law and Justice, PiS, belongs) and the S&D group (SLD and The Spring) and will temporarily improve coalition options for the Polish government. However, the EU’s post-Brexit balance of power requires a search for new coalitions in the EP, EUCO, and the Council of the European Union in order to balance the effects of a stronger France and Germany.