How would an extension work?
Extending Brexit is a job for EU leaders, say numerous diplomatic sources. The EU’s 27 heads of state and government would have to decide unanimously at an EU summit on Thursday 21 March. But first the UK has to ask. The EU cannot consider the question until the British government makes a formal request to extend article 50.
Would the EU say yes?
Probably. While any single country has the right to block a Brexit extension, most diplomats think the EU would agree, although this cannot be taken for granted.
The wildcard is that EU leaders have never discussed the issue and often take a stricter line than officials. In December, for example, EU leaders decided it would be pointless granting the UK further legal assurances on the Irish backstop, concluding that another legal paper was unlikely to sway MPs in favour of a Brexit treaty. It turned out they were right. But blocking an extension could be seen as tantamount to forcing the UK to leave the EU without a deal. The EU does not want to go down in history with the blame for Brexit.
And the British request matters: the UK must be able to show “a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration”, a spokesman for the European council president, Donald Tusk, has said.
What is a ‘credible justification’?
That’s not entirely clear. The European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, has said he opposes “any extension of article 50, even just for 24 hours, if it is not based on a clear majority from the House of Commons in favour of something”. Some EU sources say “credible justification” means time to hold a general election or a referendum. Others have no fixed view, and member states don’t want to be boxed in with strict criteria.
A short “technical” extension of two to three months to allow parliament to pass Brexit legislation would have been easy to agree if MPs had voted for the Brexit withdrawal agreement.
Now the deal has gone down in flames, the EU faces a dilemma. A short extension is seen as heightening the chances of the UK tumbling out of the EU just before European elections. But a long extension means the EU could be bogged down in Brexit for months or years, while numerous foreign and economic policy problems are jostling for attention.
Various options have been mooted, from three to 21 months, but there is no fixed view.