“Brexit was delayed until 31 October, date of Halloween: Premier May, is it ‘taste or trick’?” With a sneer, the British journalist attending Theresa May’s press conference that followed the European Council, laughed it off. But the PM, despite her utter aplomb, has no time to joke at the end of the umpteenth straining day. She has just been told that EU27 Heads of government and State gathered in an adjacent hall of the Europe Building have agreed that the new Brexit deadline is October 31st. Without budging, May replied: “We could have left on March 29 if the Withdrawal Agreement had been backed by a majority” at the House of Commons. “Should a majority in Parliament approve the Agreement we could leave the EU by May 22 and not participate in European elections.”
Negotiations until late night. The agenda of April 10 – with the umpteenth extraordinary summit in Brussels devoted to Brexit – was marked by a frantic pace. EU government and State leaders arrived at 6.00 pm in the Council’s headquarters, they listened to the speech by EU Parliament President Tajani, they took heed of May’s request for an extension to June 30 and then, at dinner, in May’s absence, new dates emerged. Green light to an extension, some proposed December 31st, others March 31st. But this would imply that the United Kingdom, now on its way out, had a right to speak on the election of the future Commission and multiannual budget and – it is feared – the possibility to obstruct the progress of the European Union. French President Macron had the upper hand: the chosen date – at 02.00 am of April 11 – is October 31, when the Commission is scheduled to take office – without a British representative. It was established that should London’s Parliament approve the Withdrawal Agreement in the coming weeks, the UK would immediately leave the Union. If this does not happen by 22 May, the United Kingdom will have to hold elections to choose its representatives in the European Parliament. If it fails to fulfil this obligation, it would leave the EU on 1 June with a “no-deal”, that is, a Brexit without rules.
“We will abide by our obligation…” In the early-morning press conference in Brussels Theresa May – expected in Westminster today – reiterated that the British Parliament is to be held responsible for the delays, as its political forces failed to reach a common ground. “I cannot pretend that the coming days will be easy – May added, evidently worn out by the negotiations – or that overcoming Parliament deadlock will be easy, but as political leaders we have an obligation to find a way to fulfil the democratic decision expressed in the referendum, get Brexit through and move forward.” Tense confrontations with the reluctant members of her Party and with Labour opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn await her in the UK. Some newspapers demand that she step down.
Dura lex, sed lex. A few meters away, in the middle of the night, another press conference was taking place chaired by European Council President Donald Tusk and by the President of the EU Commission Jean-Claude Juncker. “Please, don’t waste time”, Tusk said, addressing English politicians. “Tonight the European Council decided to grant the United Kingdom a flexible extension of the Article 50 period until the 31st of October. This means an additional 6 months for the UK. 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. It can also reconsider the whole Brexit strategy. That might lead to changes in the Political Declaration” that relates to post-Brexit “but not in the Withdrawal Agreement”, which EU27 leaders deem non-negotiable. “Until the end of this period, the UK will also have the possibility to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit altogether.” “The UK will continue its sincere cooperation as a full member state”, namely with all its rights and duties, “and as a close friend and trusted ally in the future.” Jean-Claude Juncker made some short remarks, that include: “It is likely that the UK will participate in the European elections, it may seem strange but that’s how things stand. It’s the rule, dura lex, sed lex.”
Unquestionable points. The Council “Conclusions” – the final, official document of the summit – states that the European Council, having received Mrs May’s request for a further delay, “agrees to an extension to allow for the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. Such an extension should last only as long as necessary and, in any event, no longer than 31 October 2019. If the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified by both parties before this date, the withdrawal will take place on the first day of the following month.” The European Council underlines that “the extension cannot be allowed to undermine the regular functioning of the Union and its institutions.” In other words, nobody wants London to obstruct the progress of the European Union. If the United Kingdom “has not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May 2019, it must hold the elections to the European Parliament in accordance with Union law. If the United Kingdom fails to live up to this obligation, the withdrawal will take place on 1 June 2019.” The Council reiterates that “there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement”: i.e. take it or leave it. The European Council notes that “during the extension, the United Kingdom will remain a Member State with full rights and obligations” in accordance with Article 50, and takes note “of the commitment by the United Kingdom to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout the extension, in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation.” To this end, the United Kingdom “shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives.” Moreover, some EU leaders no longer trust the Brits.