Brexit Opponents Find New Strategy in Effort to Nix DepartureBy and
Idea of extending Article 50 is said to be gaining traction
Anti-Brexit U.K. lawmakers are increasingly assertive
Opponents of Brexit are looking into whether Britain could postpone its exit from the European Union to give lawmakers and voters more time to weigh up whether they really want to leave.
Pro-EU lawmakers in all three main parties have raised privately the possibility of extending the Article 50 negotiation deadline beyond March 2019, so that if the public does change its mind, it won’t be too late to stay. One lawmaker in Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the goal is for Britain not leave the EU on March 29 next year. Another said the idea was gaining traction.
There are hurdles at home and abroad to such a strategy: The government has repeatedly said the U.K. is leaving in March 2019. The EU wants to get Brexit done with, and any extension would require unanimous approval on the European side.
While the U.K. wants to secure a trade agreement before Brexit day, the EU doesn’t expect to get into detailed negotiations about trade until after the U.K. leaves. That means the full picture of the future EU-U.K. trading relationship won’t become clear to voters or lawmakers until it’s too late to turn back.
“We should not leave the EU until we know where we are going, so a sensible solution from would be to seek to extend the Article 50 timetable,” said James McGrory, executive director of Open Britain, an anti-Brexit campaign group. “Then parliament and the public will have more information about the deal that has been negotiated and can judge whether the Brexit being delivered matches up to the one that was promised.”
Lawmakers have been promised a “meaningful” vote on the Brexit deal, but some fear the lack of clarity at the point of exit makes it less significant than they hoped. They also may be faced with a take-it-or-leave vote on whatever deal May brings back from Brussels. An extension of the Article 50 instead of the two-year transition period that the U.K. is now pursuing, could help solve the problem.
There are obstacles. The chief issue is that an extension of Article 50 would need to be requested by the British government. Because it would require the agreement of all 27 other EU countries, the U.K would have to put some diplomatic effort into the move. So simply trying to force May’s hand with a Parliamentary vote -- as anti-Brexit rebels have done in the past -- might not be enough: She would have to be persuaded that it was a good idea.
Some EU countries have indicated they might be open to the idea.
Until now, May has seemed to be more driven by the pro-Brexit wing of her party. But three developments last week mean that the anti-Brexit wing sees cause for hope.
First, the Labour Party’s decision to come out for a customs union with the EU has changed the balance of parliament, creating the possibility of defeats for May if Labour and anti-Brexit lawmakers join forces. Second, May in a speech last week acknowledged that Brexit will involve a trade-off between access to the EU market and sovereignty. That concession opens the possibility of debates about the cost. Third, Donald Trump’s trade war showed that deals beyond the EU may be harder to come by then some backers of Brexit argue.
A move to extend Article 50 would be strongly resisted by some Brexit supporters who would, correctly, see it as an attempt to stop the U.K. leaving the EU altogether. Other Brexit-backers however could see it as better than the transition arrangement that will leave the U.K. beholden to EU rules but without a vote on them.
Brexit opponents see it as a step on the road towards a referendum on the deal that the government gets.
“Article 50 should be suspended for the duration of the transition period to allow both a meaningful vote in Parliament and for the people to have a first referendum -- the final say -- on the exit deal,” said Labour lawmaker Geraint Davies, who sits on a parliamentary Brexit committee. “This will be the U.K.’s most important decision for generations, so it is imperative that the people have the last word.”