Countdown to Brexit: 7 days – 14 days – 54 days – sometime – never?

The European Council extended its scheduled three-hour discussion on Brexit in Brussels, yesterday.  For an hour-and-a half they questioned Theresa May on the UK’s formal request for to delay its exit from the European Union.  She then had to leave the meeting whilst the Heads of State for the remaining 27 EU nations deliberated the future of the UK.

The outcome is a stunning political coup.  They achieved a unanimous agreement; protected the integrity of the requirements set for granting any extension to Article 50; protected the constitutional requirements for the European Parliamentary elections that begin on 23 May; focused the minds of Westminster on the only choices open to the UK; shifted any blame for a no-deal Brexit – if it happens – from a Brussels imposition to a UK choice, freely made.

Not bad for an afternoon’s improvisation.  The flexibility to adapt to the situation from the multiple and conflicting starting points and arrive at a consensus could teach our own Parliament a lesson.

Parliament must, within the next seven days, decide the fate of Brexit and the future of the nation.

For the record, we will run through the options now open to the UK and then follow the advice of the European Commission – repeated formally and informally by Commissioners, Prime Ministers and Presidents – continue to ‘plan for the worst - whilst hoping for the best’.  President Macron reduced his ‘odds’ of a Brexit under the terms of the negotiated and jointly ‘deal’ to 5% in his post-summit precis…’over-optimistic’ in the European President Tusk’s view.

Meanwhile, Frances O’Grady, the General Secretary of the TUC, and Carolyn Fairbairn, the Director General of the CBI, have jointly written an open letter to Theresa May saying that the country is facing a “national emergency” over Brexit and express the joint view of business and workers that the Government must avoid taking the country into a no-deal scenario.  Their letter is published, below.

And the option to revoke Brexit is gaining support through an e-Petition to that effect.  The Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, dismissed it as not being on the same scale as the pro-Brexit vote in the 2016 referendum.  "Should it reach 17.4 million respondents then I am sure there will be a very clear case for taking action.  It's absolutely right that people do have the opportunity to put their views and that can then spark yet another Brexit debate."

It gained more signatures, more quickly, than has any other e-petition – crashing Parliament petition website as 2,000 people per minute tried to sign up.  At the time of writing the number stands at an unprecedented 3,000,000 signatories within 36 hours of posting.

We report the choices open to the UK from the outcome of the European Council Brussels summit on 21 March 2019 in the words of President Tusk:

“As you know, we devoted today's European Council meeting to Brexit.  Prime Minister May repeated her requests, to extend the Article 50 period until the 30th of June, and to approve the so-called Strasbourg agreement.

During the discussion among the EU27, the leaders approached these requests in a positive spirit. The European Council decided to approve the Strasbourg agreement.  As regards the extension, our decisions envisage two scenarios:

In the first scenario, that is, if the Withdrawal Agreement is passed by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until the 22nd of May.

In the second scenario, that is, if the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until the 12th of April - while expecting the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward.  What this means in practice is that, until that date, all options will remain open, and the cliff-edge date will be delayed.

The UK Government will still have a choice of:

  • a deal;

  • no-deal;

  • a ‘long’ extension; or

  • revoking Article 50.

The 12th of April is a key date in terms of the UK deciding whether to hold European Parliament elections.  If it has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible.

In accordance with the Treaties, any extension must be decided unanimously by the EU27, in agreement with the Member State concerned.  This is why I met Prime Minister May several times tonight – to make sure that the UK accepts the extension scenarios – and I am pleased to confirm that we have reached an agreement on this.”

Meanwhile, preparations for a no-deal Brexit continue to gain momentum across Government departments in the UK.  Until the 2018 Withdrawal Act is amended, the law applies - and the UK will leave the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March 2019 – that is in just 168 hours’ time.

We will report on these in detail in a future post.

Joint Letter to the Prime Minister from CBI and TUC

It is very unusual for the country’s main employers’ organisation and the body representing trade unions to unite in this way and with such a strongly worded message to government. Here it is in full:

“Together we represent millions of workers and tens of thousands of businesses. It is on their behalf that we are writing to you to ask you to change your Brexit approach.

Our country is facing a national emergency.  Decisions of recent days have caused the risk of no deal to soar.  Firms and communities across the UK are not ready for this outcome.  The shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come.

We ask you to take three steps to protect the jobs, rights and livelihoods of ordinary working people.

First, avoiding no deal is paramount.  Businesses and employees alike need to see their government clearly acknowledge the reckless damage no deal would cause and recommit itself to avoiding this outcome.

Second, securing an extension has become essential.  88% of CBI members and a majority in Parliament agree this is better than no deal.  But at the same time an extension must genuinely allow a way forwards, and be long enough for a deal to be agreed.

Third, ‘the current deal or no-deal’ must not be the only choice.  A ‘Plan B’ must be found - one that protects workers, the economy and an open Irish border, commands a parliamentary majority, and is negotiable with the EU.  A new approach is needed to secure this – whether through indicative votes or another mechanism for compromise.

We cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people.  We request an urgent meeting with you to discuss our concerns and hear your response.

Frances O’Grady - General Secretary of the TUC

Carolyn Fairbairn - Director General of the CBI”

John ShuttleworthComment