At last we know something. The United Kingdom will not be crashing out of the European Union on April 12 and it will take part in the European elections on May 23. But that’s about the extent of our knowledge. We still do not know how, or when, or even whether, Britain will make its exit from the EU. Nor can we be sure that anyone elected to the European Parliament in May will actually take their seats when the new Parliament opens for business on July 2.
Those are the main conclusions from the European Summit that ended in Brussels in the early hours of April 11. Officially, the UK was given until October 31 to get its act together or, in Brussels-speak, to gain an extension to the Article 50 process under which it is supposedly quitting the EU.
But this does not mean the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31, despite the numerous jokes going around about Britain turning into a Halloween ghost. This is because it is still possible that British Prime Minister Theresa May will manage to cobble together some kind of cross-party alliance that will ensure her thrice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement finally secures a parliamentary majority.
Acknowledging the EU extension, May said in Brussels on April 12: “If we are able to pass a deal in the first three weeks of May, we will not have to take part in European elections and will officially leave the EU on Saturday, June 1.” But that is a very big ‘if.’
The way the EU sees June 1 is somewhat different: if the UK does not take part in the European elections then that is the date when it will leave the EU without a deal. In addition, since the Summit effectively determined that Britain is no longer in danger of crashing out of the EU without a deal on April 12, there is no further need for the UK Parliament to delay its Easter recess. As a result, Parliament will enter recess at close of business on April 11 and will not reassemble until April 23. So it will be almost two weeks before the Government can make fresh moves to pass the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU has said that European Council President Donald Tusk will issue a review of the Brexit extension on June 30. This does not appear to be intended as a way of pulling the plug on Britain early, but it should serve as an indication of whether, from an EU perspective, Britain has made real progress in solving its own Brexit conundrums, notably on what kind of post-Brexit relationship it should have with the EU.
Britain’s politics are so fractured at present that it seems safe to assume that the next few months will continue to be dominated by Brexit-related political maneuvering both between and within Britain’s main political parties. The extension also means there will now be at least two major polls in the next six weeks in which the relative popularity of the ruling Conservative Party and Labour, the main opposition party can be judged. One will be the local elections on May 2 in England and Northern Ireland (which between them account for around 87% of the UK’s 66.87 million population); the other will be the elections for the European Parliament on May 23. And while the British Government has no wish to see the UK take part in the European poll, so long as it remains a member of the EU, it must participate.
The European elections pose particular problems for the Conservative Party since its divisions over Brexit are much larger than those within Labour. The combination of a form of proportional representation and a party list system mean that smaller parties tend to fare much better in European polls than they do in Britain’s general elections, where the first-past-the-post system favors the two main parties. It is quite possible to envisage European elections on May 23 that result in the Tories coming a distant third to Labour and parties supporting a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. Because Labour enjoys strong support among those who voted ‘Remain’ in the 2016 referendum, it should do well, even though around 10% of Labour seats in the House of Commons are in areas that voted ‘Leave’ in 2016.
It is possible that the Government might be able to secure a parliamentary deal for withdrawal before the elections are due to take place, but that would depend on it winning two major battles. The first would be to secure a degree of Labour Party backing for the current Withdrawal Agreement, perhaps by tacking on a commitment to form a customs union with the European Union. This is strongly favored by Labour, and by some leading members of May’s own cabinet, although the prime minister herself fiercely opposes it. (It is important to stress that the EU has made it clear that the text of the Withdrawal Agreement concluded in November cannot be changed and that what’s therefore at stake is the issue of what kind of future trading relationship Britain is to have with its former twenty-seven EU partners).
However, it is the second battle, over the question of a second popular referendum, that might prove harder to win. This is because there is strong support within Labour for any deal to have a confirmatory referendum, with the alternative being to remain in the EU. May doesn’t want another referendum and neither does Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. For Corbyn, the risk is that he splits his party if he doesn’t press for a referendum; for May the risk is turning existing divisions in her party into much deeper splits if she presses ahead with a deal with Labour, particularly if she agrees to a referendum. On this issue, it is easier for Corbyn to bow to Labour party pressures than for May to confront a split which has sometimes led a majority of her own MPs to vote against her own Government’s parliamentary motions. Just as it is increasingly likely that a parliamentary majority will eventually be found for a customs union, it is also quite likely that calls for a second referendum will eventually secure a parliamentary majority.
There are further uncertainties. Will May be forced to resign so that a new Conservative leader can become prime minister? She had previously promised to quit before the next general election, whenever that is, but in Brussels she said she would stay on to see Britain though the Brexit process.
But what if sufficient Conservative rebels opposed both to her Withdrawal Agreement and to the extension of Article 50 and the requirement to take part in the European elections join with Labour to defeat her in a vote of confidence? Although the process is more cumbersome than previously, this could trigger a general election. And although the Tories until recently held modest leads in the opinion polls, the last few weeks of parliamentary chaos have seen Labour’s popularity rise and that of the Conservatives fall.
Moreover, the image of May in Brussels needing to accept whatever extension the EU was prepared to grant her was not very edifying. And one of the reasons why France, in particular, favored an earlier cut-off date for the extension than most other EU member states was that it feared May might not be prime minister for much longer and that since any likely successor – such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – would come from the Tory rebels who have been most vociferous in their opposition to the EU, the UK’s next prime minister might opt for a deliberately disruptive approach to EU participation during Britain’s final months as an EU member.
Then there is question of a referendum. The general assumption is that legal requirements mean it could take several months to organize. If the Government does concede the necessity of holding a referendum, or if Parliament enforces its will and orders the Government to hold such a poll, then it might just be possible to hold one towards the end of July, but September or October would seem the more likely options.
It does look as if the prospects for a second referendum are improving. Britons traditionally go the polls on Thursdays. This writer is tempted to place a modest wager on a Halloween referendum.
John M. Roberts is a UK-based senior fellow at Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and Global Energy Center.