EU approves Brexit delay with warning to “not waste this time”

Another week, another Brexit delay.

In the early morning hours of the day before the UK was due to crash out of the EU, the European Union announced that it had again approved a delay to the Brexit process, this time until October 31.

The UK was scheduled to leave the EU on March 29, which was later extended to April 12 after British lawmakers failed to pass a withdrawal agreement.

The latest extension was agreed to after several hours of back-and-forth discussions between EU leaders who are divided on how to address the UK’s ongoing political deadlock over Brexit.

Though UK Prime Minister Theresa May had requested an extension until June 30, leaders of the remaining 27 European nations weren’t convinced that she would be able to get a deal approved by Parliament in that time frame.

Speaking after the EU summit in Brussels, European Council President Donald Tusk said that though the new date is shorter than the yearlong extension he had proposed, he believed that it still offered enough time “to find the best possible solution.”

But Tusk also offered a word of caution to British lawmakers: “Please do not waste this time.”

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Division among EU countries

The new deadline means that the UK will almost certainly have to hold elections for the European Parliament, which start on May 23.

However, if the UK can agree on a deal by May 22, the country will not have to hold elections.

There has been some contention surrounding the UK’s potential participation in the European Parliament elections, with European leaders expressing concern that the UK might sabotage EU decision-making. However, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was confident the UK would abide by the “sincere cooperation” obligation of the extension, adding that the possibility for British representatives to block EU decisions is “very, very limited.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been vocal about his frustration with Brexit, said the new deadline means the UK will be out of the EU before the mandate of the new European Commission starts on November 1, which will mitigate concerns about disruptions to future bloc business.

“It’s true that the majority was more in favour of a very long extension. But it was not logical in my view, and above all, it was neither good for us, nor the UK,” Macron said after the summit.

Addressing the divide, Tusk said that the EU leaders are united in their decision, but that doesn’t mean they all have to take the same position.

“Unity in our case means we are always able to find a compromise,” Tusk said during the press conference, later adding with a chuckle: “It’s still much easier to build a majority here or even unity than in the House of Commons.”

Deadlock continues

Speaking of unity in the House of Commons, in a press conference after the summit, May said there is no easy way to break the political deadlock but that she would continue to hold cross-party talks to try to find a compromise.

“I know there is huge frustration from many people that I had to request this extension,” said May. “The UK should have left the EU by now, and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way.”

Addressing British MPs the day after the summit, May said that if she can’t reach a compromise agreement with Labour, then she will bring forward a few options for indicative votes.

While Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said he is open to continuing talks with May, he said that the need to request a second delay was evidence of the government’s failure with Brexit.

“This second extension in the space of a fortnight represents not only a diplomatic failure but is another milestone in the government’s mishandling of the entire Brexit process,” Corbyn stated.

After several days of talks between the Conservative government and the opposing Labour Party, there has been no sign of progress towards reaching a compromise. Labour has indicated that it’s in favor of a softer Brexit than the government proposed in the withdrawal agreement it negotiated with the EU, and also wants to maintain a close trade relationship with the bloc.

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Next steps

As for what happens next with Brexit, Tusk made it clear that’s up to British lawmakers but noted the EU wouldn’t permit renegotiating the existing withdrawal agreement.

“During this time, the course of action will be entirely in the UK’s hands. It can still ratify the withdrawal agreement, in which case the extension will be terminated,” he explained. “It can also reconsider the whole Brexit strategy that might lead to changes in the political declaration but not in the withdrawal agreement.”

Tusk added that the UK also has the option to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether.

The decision by EU leaders also includes a provision requiring a review process at the bloc’s regular summit in June. The assessment is intended to be an informational update and European leaders will not have to make any new decision on Brexit.

“In June we are taking stock of what has happened from now to then. It’s not a negotiation session,” explained Juncker.

And they don’t rule out the possibility of another extension request come October. Though Tusk said the intention is to finalize the whole process in October, he added that “everything is possible,” including the possibility of another delay.

Said Juncker of the Brexit impasse: “We will have Brexit with a deal (but) I would have preferred the deal without Brexit.”

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