BREXIT UPDATE 25: On the Eve of the European Council’s Emergency Summit

At the end of Brexit Update 24 on Sunday, I wrote that this week looked set to be crunch week.   So what has happened so far?  These are the main developments:

1) The Cooper/Letwin Bill

I wrote in Brexit Update 23 that the Cooper/Letwin Bill (designed to stop the UK leaving with No Deal this Friday), which its sponsors had sought to push through in one day last Wednesday, passed the Commons by one vote on that day and then on the same evening went to the Lords, where there was so much filibustering (delaying tactics) by Eurosceptic Lords that the vote had to be held over till Monday of this week.   Yesterday (Monday, April 8), the Bill passed in the Lords and went straight back to the Commons with various amendments.  These included specifications that any extension date proposed should be no earlier than May 22 and that the motion to be proposed the next day by the government need not be put forward by the Prime Minister but by a member of her government.  The bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Commons late yesterday evening: the Ayes: 390; the Noes: 81.[1]  The bill then received Royal Assent by the Queen at 11pm last night and immediately became British law.  It is now known as the EU (Withdrawal) Act 2019.

This is how I described the new Act in Brexit Update 23:

“The bill calls for the Maybot to present to Parliament an amendable motion proposing an extension of Article 50 up to a date that she would choose.  The motion would be amended, debated and voted on by MPs.  If MPs decide on a different date, the Maybot will be obliged to take it to the EU leaders for their summit on Wednesday April 10.  If the EU proposes a different date, the Maybot must bring it back to the House of Commons on Thursday, April 11, to be approved by MPs before it can become law.  This seems to be a means of preventing the government from rejecting the EU’s proposed date – widely predicted to be a long extension – and leaving with no deal on April 12.”

2) Today’s (Tuesday April 9) House of Commons Debate on the June 30 extension motion.

Today, as specified by the new EU (Withdrawal) Act 2019, a government motion on an extension date was put forward for debate and vote in the House of Commons.  The motion ran:

“That this House agrees for the purposes of Section 1 of the European (Withdrawal) Act 2019 to the Prime Minister seeking an extension of the period specified in Article 50 (3) of the Treaty on European Union to a period ending on 30 June 2019.”

The motion was proposed by the Solicitor-General, Robert Buckland, because the Maybot was today  visiting Paris and Berlin, trying to drum up support from the German Chancellor and the French President for a June 30 extension ahead of the emergency European Council meeting tomorrow.   The Speaker did not select any amendments. Despite impassioned pleas from Tory Brexiteers for the UK to leave without a deal this Friday, the motion overwhelmingly passed: the Ayes:  420; the Noes: 110.  Many Remainer MPs who spoke in the debate said they were voting for the June 30 extension as a minimum; they really wanted a much longer extension; and several said they wanted an extension long enough to allow a People’s Vote – ie a second referendum.  In a breakdown of the votes, the Guardian points out that the government motion passed with majority opposition support.  42 per cent of Conservatives voted in favour of the government motion; 30 per cent defied the whip to vote against.  The rest (80 Conservative MPs) did not vote; this number included 12 government ministers.[2]

3)  Talks between Labour and Conservative leaders

The talks stalled at the weekend but resumed today.  However, today Labour issued the following statement:

“We had further detailed and wide-ranging talks with cabinet ministers and officials today.  We have yet to see the clear shift in the government’s position that is needed to secure a compromise agreement.  We have agreed to hold further talks on Thursday, in an effort to break the Brexit deadlock and find a compromise that can win support in Parliament and bring the country together.”[3]

So it is clear that the Maybot will not be going to the European Council emergency summit tomorrow with any kind of plan or purpose for the June 30 extension that she will be requesting.  She will presumably try to convince the 27 EU leaders (in a presentation that she is going to make to them before she leaves the room) that the Conservatives are on the brink of striking an agreement with Labour that will enable the UK Parliament to agree the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration probably before the European elections and at the latest June 30.  But a letter that Donald Tusk has sent to the 27 leaders makes clear he is not taken in.

4) The Tusk Letter

Despite the UK’s lack of any consensus, plan or purpose, Donald Tusk is still proposing a long “flextension”.  Reproduced in full below is the text of the invitation letter he has sent to the leaders of the 27 EU member states.  He recognises and repudiates the Maybot’s failed tactics of “running down the clock”, securing short extension dates that she can use, over and over again, to attempt to force MPs to vote for her deal, by means of  threatening them with either No Deal, No Brexit or a “soft” Brexit.  As he puts it:

“our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June.  In reality, granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates”.

Instead, he proposes his “flextension”, a flexible extension that would last no longer than one year and could end at any point, should the UK Parliament finally agree a deal.  He issues a warning to the UK that it “would have to maintain its sincere cooperation also during this crucial period, in a manner that reflects its situation as a departing member state” – this seems to be a reference to threats by Brexiteer Tory MPs in recent debates to disrupt the EU Parliament if the UK has to participate in its sessions; for instance, in today’s Brexit debate, the Tory MP Tim Loughton, calling on EU leaders to “put us out of our misery” by deciding that the UK must leave with No Deal on Friday, said: “If the EU elections go ahead, it is highly likely that the UK will elect an army of Nigel Farage Mini-Mes who will frankly wreak havoc with the European Parliament and wreck your calculations about the balance of power within the EU.”[4]  Tusk also calls for the UK to be treated with respect and not  humiliated – which actually points up the UK’s pitiful situation and the frustration and “Brexit fatigue” felt by so many EU leaders.

The year-long “flextension” seems to me to be the most likely outcome of the EU Council meeting tomorrow.  The UK would then find itself staying in the EU for another year and taking part in the European Parliament elections, for which it has already started preparing.  It is difficult to see how the Maybot can remain as Prime Minister in such circumstances, since her whole raison d’etre has been to deliver Brexit on time (or close to the original leaving date).

The next Brexit Update will discuss the Council’s decision that will be made tomorrow evening and consider its likely effects.

DONALD’S TUSK’S INVITATION LETTER TO THE 27 EU MEMBERS STATES AHEAD OF TOMORROW’S EMERGENCY SUMMIT OF THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL

“Last week I received a letter from Prime Minister May requesting a further extension of the Article 50 period, until 30 June 2019. In her letter the Prime Minister states that the UK government’s policy remains to leave the EU in an orderly way, and that it is therefore now seeking a consensus across the House of Commons on the right way forward. She also adds that, if the UK were an EU member on 23 May 2019, it would be under a legal obligation to hold elections to the European Parliament.

Given the risks posed by a no-deal Brexit for people and businesses on both sides of the English Channel, I trust that we will continue to do our utmost to avoid this scenario. Therefore I propose that we consider Prime Minister May’s request for an extension at our meeting tomorrow.

However, our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June.  In reality, granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates. This, in turn, would almost certainly overshadow the business of the EU27 in the months ahead. The continued uncertainty would also be bad for our businesses and citizens. Finally, if we failed to agree on any next extension, there would be a risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit.

That is why I believe we should also discuss an alternative, longer extension. One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year, as beyond that date we will need to decide unanimously on some key European projects. The flexibility would allow to terminate the extension automatically, as soon as both sides have ratified the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK would be free to leave whenever it is ready. And the EU27 would avoid repeated Brexit summits. Importantly, a long extension would provide more certainty and predictability by removing the threat of constantly shifting cliff-edge dates. Furthermore, in the event of a continued stalemate, such a longer extension would allow the UK to rethink its Brexit strategy.

Some of you have raised concerns that the UK’s continued presence as a departing EU country would pose risks for the functioning of the EU27 at a time of key decisions on its future. To address them we would need to agree on a number of conditions: no re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement; no start of the negotiations on the future, except for the Political Declaration; the UK would have to maintain its sincere cooperation also during this crucial period, in a manner that reflects its situation as a departing member state. We should remember, however, that the United Kingdom will remain a member state with full rights and obligations. And, in any event, the UK can revoke Article 50 at any time, as stated by the European Court of Justice.

Whatever course of action is taken, it must not be influenced by negative emotions. We should treat the UK with the highest respect, as we want to remain friends and close partners, and as we will still need to agree on our future relations. Neither side should be allowed to feel humiliated at any stage in this difficult process.

As you know, with Brexit there are no easy solutions. Both aforementioned options have their advantages and disadvantages. Therefore, let us discuss them in an open, creative, and constructive way.

We will meet at18.00 for an exchange with European Parliament President Tajani. We will then hear Prime Minister May, before meeting for dinner at 27 in order to agree a response to the United Kingdom’s request.[5]

[1] To watch the debate: https://parliamentlive.tv/event/index/4576d30e-52ad-42d9-b5c4-22e1723c47de?in=21:01:05

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/apr/09/brexit-latest-developments-news-theresa-may-visits-berlin-and-paris-as-gauke-plays-down-prospect-of-early-breakthrough-in-talks-with-labour-live-news?page=with:block-5caccb868f08ce46f07ec0c6#block-5caccb868f08ce46f07ec0c6

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/apr/09/brexit-latest-developments-news-theresa-may-visits-berlin-and-paris-as-gauke-plays-down-prospect-of-early-breakthrough-in-talks-with-labour-live-news

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/apr/09/brexit-latest-developments-news-theresa-may-visits-berlin-and-paris-as-gauke-plays-down-prospect-of-early-breakthrough-in-talks-with-labour-live-news?page=with:block-5cacbd788f0852bbb93b4c7f#block-5cacbd788f0852bbb93b4c7f

[5] https://www.consilium.europa.eu/en/press/press-releases/2019/04/09/invitation-letter-by-president-donald-tusk-to-the-members-of-the-european-council-art-50-ahead-of-their-special-meeting-on-10-april-2019/