What is the Brexit timetable looking like now?
What is happening with the Brexit timetable?
After MPs voted against Boris Johnson’s accelerated timetable for passing the Brexit withdrawal bill through the Commons, the prime minister said he would pause the legislative process. Johnson said MPs were not seeking to scrutinise the bill but merely trying to block his plans to leave the EU by 31 October. He said he did not want a delay and would continue to talk with EU27 leaders until they decided whether or not to grant one. Downing Street sources said if the government was forced to agree to an extension up to 31 January, as stipulated under the Benn act, Johnson would seek a general election. Important note: the new exit date of 31 January proposed in Johnson’s request is “fungible” (a term inherited by the EU from Theresa May’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins), meaning it can be traded away for an earlier end date if the bill is ratified ahead of time.
How has the EU responded?
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, posted a tweet that deserves some unpacking. “Following PM Boris Johnson’s decision to break the process of ratification of the withdrawal agreement, and in order to avoid a no-deal #Brexit, I will recommend the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension. For this I will propose a written procedure.”
Tusk is making clear that events in Westminster are driving the timetable. The leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has admitted that Johnson’s pause would make ratification by 31 October impossible. The EU’s priority is to avoid a no-deal Brexit, either through a deal or a delay.
The UK had requested an extension, Tusk pointed out, and it was the only request on the table. He recommends that the extension is approved by written procedure, rather than by convening leaders at a European council summit. This would only be possible if there was no need for a debate among leaders. They had a discussion at last week’s summit and not even the French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke out against granting a further delay. Since the summit, Tusk has had further conversations with leaders, and they have clearly given him sufficient hope of unanimity to raise the prospect of agreement by written procedure. But those discussions were held without knowing how things would develop in Westminster. Tusk was due to have further contact with leaders on Wednesday, and EU ambassadors will meet in the evening in Brussels.
Will EU leaders simply agree to a Brexit extension?
Tusk’s argument will be that the EU should stay neutral. By granting the UK government the extension it requested, the bloc can best avoid being dragged into the British debate. Should Johnson formally and publicly propose a different extension length, then the situation will be very different. The successful vote on the second reading has offered some hope to Brussels that there is a majority for ratification, and that a general election might not be necessary. But a new request from Johnson would not appear to be in compliance with the Benn act, which instructed him to make a specific request and then agree it with the EU if they were in accord. Sources in Paris have suggested there should be a further delay of only a “few days” to allow for ratification. That would leave the EU jointly culpable for a no-deal Brexit, if swift ratification was not possible. Tusk will counsel against it.
When will we know?
If the extension to 31 January is agreed among the leaders, it will be made public on Friday. If they are in disagreement, there will need to be a summit and, again, that should be clear by the weekend. A summit takes some organising. It is a holiday period next week in Belgium. Police and security need to be organised. It cannot be done at the drop of a hat. And the clock is ticking.