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EU leaders grant UK Brexit extension until October 31

Country likely to take part in European Parliamentary elections next month

The United Kingdom will remain an EU member state until October 31, following agreement by EU leaders in Brussels late on Wednesday to extend the ‘Article 50’ Brexit process by almost six months.

The decision - to which the UK has assented – staves off the immediate threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which would otherwise have happened by default at midnight tomorrow Friday (April 12) in the absence of an extension.

Britain thus continues to be fully covered by both the Common Agricultural Policy and EU internal and external trade policy for the time being, and the expected disruption to cross-Channel trade in agricultural products has been avoided, or at least postponed.

But the UK’s planning for a no-deal Brexit, including the possible activation of an autonomous import tariff regime, will have to be held in reserve in case there is still no Brexit resolution by the end of October.

The UK has the option of leaving at any time before October 31 if it can get parliamentary agreement on the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement before then. But it will need to hold elections to the European Parliament on May 23, if the House of Commons has not agreed to approve the Brexit deal by the previous day.

The Article 50 process had already been extended once – a two-week delay beyond the original leaving date of March 29.

October 31 represents the last day in office of the current Commission executive, led by President Jean-Claude Juncker. The UK’s own Commissioner will thus remain in office for the full remaining period on his term, unless the UK leaves the EU before that date.

UK warned to ‘behave itself’

No specific conditions have been placed on the UK to regulate its activity as a ‘life-expired’ member of the EU.

There had been pre-Summit speculation that the UK would be excluded from EU discussions on issues such as the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Multiannual Financial Framework for the (post-Brexit) 2021-27 period. Instead, the EU’s Decision makes clear that “the United Kingdom will remain a Member State until the new withdrawal date, with full rights and obligations.”

However, in what has been viewed as an ‘anti-wrecking clause’, the EU Decision also amplifies the principle of ‘sincere cooperation’ which has bound the UK since its initial triggering of the Article 50 process, with a stipulation that “the United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and shall refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives, in particular when participating in the decision-making processes of the Union.”

EU Council President Donald Tusk, whose term of office also expires on October 31, emphasised at a post-Summit press conference that the extension means that the next steps are “entirely in the UK's hands.”

He added that a change of approach on Brexit on the UK’s part could lead to “changes in the Political Declaration” – a reference to the possibility that the UK may opt for a customs union with the EU as part of its longer-term relationship – or to revoke Brexit altogether. But Tusk ruled out any revisiting of the Withdrawal Agreement, which sets out the terms of the EU-UK ‘divorce settlement’.

UK prime minister Theresa May said: “I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way. But the choices we now face are stark and the timetable is clear.”

She pledged to press ahead with ongoing negotiations with Opposition UK politicians, in a bid to find what she described as “a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest.”


UK’s internal Brexit battles resume

The focus of the Brexit drama thus now returns to London. May’s Conservative Party is anxious to avoid having to run European Parliament elections next month, as this would inevitably become a kind of proxy referendum on the government’s handling of Brexit.

The government is therefore still hoping that the Withdrawal Agreement – which has now been defeated three times in votes in the House of Commons – may yet be approved, perhaps in conjunction with cross-party agreement on a different form of future relationship with the EU.

However, the UK parliament remains as polarised as ever over the Brexit issue, and there is still no clarity over which solution will ultimately be preferred. The extension to October 31 creates just enough time to hold a confirmatory public referendum on Brexit if UK politicians were to choose that option, while Council President Donald Tusk also reminded May that she still had the option of unilaterally revoking Article 50 and ‘cancelling Brexit’.

But in a warning that the EU27 would not countenance any further extensions of the Article 50 process, Tusk also told the UK: “This extension is as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected, but it's still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time.”

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