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08 March 2019

Open Europe: Under which conditions would the EU27 agree to an Article 50 extension?

Open Europe has looked at the statements and positions of all remaining 27 EU member states to assess which conditions they may demand in exchange for agreeing an extension.

Main findings

While it has been argued on the Brexiteer side that a 21-month extension could be desirable in order to facilitate a ‘managed’ No Deal Brexit in 2021, it is very unlikely the EU27 will agree such terms for a delay. The vast majority of member states have committed to avoiding a No Deal scenario.

Prime Minister Theresa May suggested in a speech on 8 March that in order to agree an extension of Article 50 member states could ask further conditions, such as “no end to free movement [of people], no taking back control…or a second Brexit referendum.” However, it seems likely that these assertions were aimed at a domestic political audience. For most member states, the most important condition remains for the UK to provide clarity and guarantees that extending Article 50 will actually help Theresa May get her deal through the House of Commons. 

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that if the UK requests a delay the EU27 will “immediately ask ‘What for’?” The answer that the UK provides to that question is likely to determine the length of the extension. For instance, if the extension is “technical” and serves the purpose of passing the necessary domestic legislation, it is most likely to be a short extension of weeks or months.

Some member states, such as Austria and Germany, have stressed that there should be no extension beyond the European Parliament (EP) elections in May, suggesting that the delay could only be a short one in any scenario. However, others, such as Luxembourg and Ireland, have suggested that if the UK provides a valid reason for extension, the obstacle of elections could be overcome.

Some leaders have said they would like to see a second referendum in the UK; this implicitly means support for a longer delay to Brexit, as it is estimated a referendum will take at least six months to implement. Meanwhile, it has been reported that member states such as France would also prefer a longer delay in order to avoid the UK asking for repeated extensions.

Finally, there are figures such as Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė who have suggested that a No Deal Brexit could be better than continued uncertainty, if there is no valid reason for a delay. However, they are unlikely to veto an extension if the consensus among other member states is for one.

In this table, Open Europe categorises statements made by officials and leaders from EU27 member states about the conditions to be fulfilled in order to extend Article 50. These categories are not mutually exclusive and are based on the main statements that leading politicians and officials from the member states have made in the last weeks and months.

The bigger picture: EU27 motivations

Despite the different views held by different member states, any extension will be a common EU decision. There are broadly three motivations on the EU27 side:

  • Avoiding the chaos of a No Deal exit at the end of March, while also avoiding any practical difficulties relating to the European Parliament elections. This lends itself to a short extension, which would have to have a clear purpose and would last no later than the end of June.
  • A few member states also hold out limited hope that the political weather in the UK might change, towards either a much softer Brexit or a second referendum. This lends itself to a longer extension, beyond the European elections.
  • Maximising pressure on UK MPs to vote for the deal. This lends itself to the threat of a longer extension, perhaps in the hope that MPs will reject this offer and back the deal instead.

These motivations are not mutually exclusive and some member states hold more than one of them. Taken together, there may yet be the prospect of a ‘two-pronged’ offer from the EU on extension – under which the extension would be a technical, short one of up to three months if the deal is passed by a certain date, but much longer (between 9 and 21 months) if it is not. [...]

Full assessment

© Open Europe

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