May and Juncker in tug of war over Brexit extension deadline

British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission (R) speaks to the journalists during a press conference at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, 11 March 2019. [Patrick Seeger/EPA/EFE]

British Prime Minister Theresa May formally asked the EU on Wednesday (20 March) for an extension of the Brexit date until 30 June. In response, however, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned May that Brexit needs to be completed before 23 May, or the UK will have to hold European elections.

May’s long-awaited letter reached European Council President Donald Tusk and other EU leaders in the early afternoon of Wednesday, just as officials were beginning to doubt the utility of discussing Brexit at the 21-22 March summit.

In her letter to Tusk, May said that she was “confident” that UK lawmakers would ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. The letter implied that UK MPs will still face a binary choice between accepting the Withdrawal Agreement and a ‘no deal’ scenario.

An extension longer than three months, she wrote, would oblige the UK to hold European elections. In addition to the extension, May has asked EU leaders to approve the supplementary documents agreed by her and Juncker in Strasbourg on 11 March.

UK set to demand Brexit extension after MPs hand heavy defeat to May

UK MPs again rejected Theresa May’s Brexit Withdrawal Agreement by a huge majority on Tuesday evening (12 March), dealing a devastating blow to the embattled prime minister’s credibility

May had intended to hold a third ‘meaningful vote’ earlier this week, but the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, issued an unexpected ruling that MPs could not be asked to vote again on the same deal in a session of parliament.

Speaker deals blow to May's bid for 3rd 'meaningful vote'

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to get her EU divorce deal through parliament was hit Monday (18 March) with a bombshell announcement by the speaker, ruling MPs could not vote again on the same proposal they had already rejected.

In her letter, May stated that her intention remains to bring the Brexit deal back to the House, and that she will put to the vote her agreement as ratified by the EU summit, and also “domestic proposals that confirm my previous commitments to protect our internal market, given the concerns expressed about the backstop”.

A longer extension than three months would see “this House spending yet more hours contemplating its navel on Europe,” she said.

“This House has indulged itself on Europe for too long. They (the British people) deserve better than this House has given them,” said May.

In the meantime, UK ministers are expected to table secondary legislation in the coming days that would delay the date of its EU exit.

Juncker reacts

However, Mina Andreeva, a spokesperson for Juncker, tweeted that the Commission boss had warned May against an extension beyond 23 May. Across the EU, European elections will be held between 23 and 26 May.

“Brexit has to be complete before 23 May – otherwise EU elections have to be held in the UK,” Andreeva quoted her boss as saying.

Downing Street officials revealed that after sending her letter, the prime minister phoned Juncker to update him on the latest developments and consulted him on how to address the European Council on Thursday.

If the UK is still an EU member at the time of the European elections but doesn’t hold a national vote,  there is a legal risk that all decisions of the next European Parliament could be challenged in court as invalid.

The main UK political parties are understood to have contingency plans in place to quickly select a slate of European elections candidates.

The initial reaction of EU diplomats with whom EURACTIV spoke was that they would look “positively” into May’s requests. Having briefly looked at May’s letter, one diplomat said, even prior to Juncker’s reaction, that he would prefer a Brexit date before 23 May.

Other diplomats expressed relief that May didn’t ask for a longer extension, which would pose many more risks for the EU.

A short extension that would allow the UK to ratify the withdrawal agreement is the preferred option for most of the member states.

Asked on whether the EU might then counter May’s request, diplomatic sources said that was not a matter “for bargaining” and was confident the issue could be solved in a few days or weeks in London.

“We are quite consumed by Brexit,” a diplomat confessed.

After meeting European Affairs ministers on Tuesday (19 March), the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier warned that the UK needed to come up with a plan so that even after an extension “we are not in the same situation again” in a few months.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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