The European Council has approved a short extension to the UK’s membership of the EU, postponing Brexit until at least April.
Leaders of the 27 remaining EU Member States met with embattled UK Prime Minister Theresa May last night to negotiate pushing back the date of Brexit, still technically enshrined in UK law as 29 March. The Council agreed to allow Brexit to be postponed until 22 May only if May’s withdrawal agreement could pass a vote in the House of Commons. The withdrawal agreement has been voted down with three-figure majorities twice; and Speaker of the House John Bercow announced last week that he would not allow the same deal to be put to a vote for a third time without substantive material change.
If MPs cannot reach a consensus on a withdrawal agreement by 29 March, the new date set for the UK to leave the EU or make alternative arrangements will be 12 April. At that point either a no-deal Brexit will occur or the UK could be accorded a further extension in the event of a second referendum or a general election, conditional on the UK’s participation in the European elections in May.
President of the European Council Donald Tusk said: “During the discussion among the EU27, the leaders approached these requests in a positive spirit. The European Council decided to approve the Strasbourg agreement… The UK Government will still have a choice of a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50. The 12th of April is a key date in terms of the UK deciding whether to hold European Parliament elections. If it has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible.”
May attracted widespread criticism on Wednesday night for a public statement in which she appeared to blame Parliament for the ongoing Brexit crisis. MPs, who have reportedly been told to take taxis to work and travel in groups to avoid attacks from angry members of the public, expressed concern that the Prime Minister was stoking tensions amid an increasingly fraught discourse that has already seen MPs receive threats, physical attacks and increase levels of personal security. One MP told PoliticsHome: “Unlike me, she’s never had to say to a bloke installing a panic button in the house ‘needs to be a bit higher mate so the kids can’t reach it’.”
In a statement released after yesterday’s EU negotiations, the Prime Minister said: “I know MPs on all sides of the debate have passionate views, and I respect those different positions. Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do.”
An online petition calling on the UK Parliament to revoke Article 50 altogether and cancel Brexit has now received more than 3.5 million signatures – more than 100,000 signatures on a petition on the Parliament website guarantee it will be debated in the House of Commons. The parliamentary petitions website crashed multiple times yesterday due to the high volume of signatories; the House of Commons Petitions Committee tweeted: “Between 80,000 and 100,000 people have been simultaneously viewing the petition to revoke article 50. Nearly 2,000 signatures are being completed every minute”, adding that the rate of signing was the highest the site had ever experienced.
Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, said: “Should [the petition] reach 17.4 million respondents [the number of people who voted to leave the EU in 2016] then I am sure there will be a very clear case for taking action. It’s absolutely right that people do have the opportunity to put their views and that can then spark yet another Brexit debate.” A spokeswoman for Theresa May added that the Prime Minister “would not countenance” revoking Article 50.
Protesters intend to hold a march in London tomorrow, 23 March, to campaign for a second referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The Put It To The People march, set to begin at 12pm on Park Lane, anticipates hundreds of thousands of marchers from across the UK: around 750,000 campaigners participated in the People’s Vote march in October 2018. Speakers at the event will include Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon; Labour MPs Jess Phillips and David Lammy; Conservative MP Dominic Grieve; Independent Group MP and former Conservative Anna Soubry; Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas.