EU agrees Brexit extension to 31 January
The EU has agreed to a Brexit extension to 31 January 2020, with the option for the UK to leave earlier if a deal is ratified, clearing the way for opposition parties to back a general election.
After a 30-minute meeting of European ambassadors, Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, said the EU27 had agreed to the request made by Boris Johnson just over a week ago.
He tweeted: “The EU27 has agreed that it will accept the UK’s request for a new flextension until 31 January 2020. The decision is expected to be formalised through a written procedure.”
The prime minister, who said he would rather die in a ditch than delay Brexit, is now under an obligation to agree to the terms, breaking his pledge to leave on 31 October, “no ifs, no buts … do or die”.
Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, tweeted: “Relieved that finally no one died in a ditch. Whether the UK’s democratic choice is revoke or an orderly withdraw, confirmed or not in a second referendum, the uncertainty of Brexit has gone on for far too long. This extra time must deliver a way forward.”
The Liberal Democrats and Scottish National party have said they would back a general election on 9 December if no deal on 31 October is “taken off the table”. Downing Street has let it be known that it is considering how to respond to the opposition parties.
Labour continues to insist it will not back an election unless there are further assurances the UK will not crash out on 31 January.
Under the terms of the extension, the UK has three months more of EU membership but it can leave on the first day of any of those months if the withdrawal agreement is ratified in both Westminster and the European parliament in the meantime.
The EU has insisted it will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement again. The UK also has “an obligation” to nominate a candidate to join the European commission. The prime minister has previously said he will not put forward a nominee.
By agreeing the extension through a written procedure, to be completed by Wednesday at the latest, EU leaders will avoid convening for a summit in Brussels.
“Tusk will launch the written procedure among EU27 with a deadline of 24 hours,” an EU source said. “The formal flextension decision is made upon the positive conclusion of the written procedure. We hope this to be concluded by Tuesday or Wednesday.”
The decision to grant a third extension followed intensive discussions over the weekend, including a conversation between the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Johnson.
Among weekend developments that persuaded Paris to drop its objections to a further delay of up to three months was “the significantly more likely prospect of fresh elections, now backed by several parties including the Liberal Democrats and the SNP”, a French official said.
The conditions attached to the extension had also been “further specified and reinforced” on Saturday and Sunday, the source said, in particular the “non-renegotiability” of the deal and the fact that the EU27 will be able to work on the bloc’s future plans without the UK.
While wishing to preserve the unity of the EU27, which had been the guiding principle throughout the negotiations, the source said, Paris had “insisted on these conditions as necessary”.
During the ambassadors’ meeting, France’s representative complained that the three-month extension would lift the pressure on MPs to ratify the revised withdrawal agreement, but reluctantly gave his support, EU sources said.
France’s EU affairs minister, Amélie de Montchalin, later tweeted: “Obviously, and this is our position for months, the Europeans will not oppose a postponement of Brexit linked to a democratic clarification, like new elections. We are neither interfering nor indifferent.”
The terms in the draft agreement are in line with those stipulated under the Benn act, which forced Johnson to make a request to the EU for a further delay.
“The period provided for in article 50 (3) TEU as extended by the European council decision (EU) 2019/584 is hereby further extended until 31 January 2020,” the agreement says.
“In the event that the parties to that agreement complete their respective ratification procedures and notify the depositary of the completion of these procedures in November 2019, in December 2019 or in January 2020, the withdrawal agreement will enter into into force respectively on [the first of the month of the relevant month].”