The U.K. voted in June 2016 to exit the European Union, and the March 29 departure date is almost here. But members of Parliament voted on Thursday to delay exit day. So what on earth happens now?
How long is the delay?
The vote authorized Prime Minister Theresa May to ask the EU to extend Article 50 (the legislation that pulls the U.K. out of the EU) until June 30 — that is, if MPs vote in favor of her Brexit deal when it is put to a vote for a third time next week. The short delay would be to allow the necessary legislation to be passed.
But if MPs once again reject her deal, she has warned that a longer extension will be necessary to work out what to do instead.
This would also mean the U.K. will have to take part in the European Parliament elections (and elect representatives to it) in two months.
The prospect of a proposed 21-month delay, to the end of 2020, would press euroskeptic Conservative Party MPs to vote for May’s deal to ensure that Brexit happens this year.
Will the EU agree?
To extend Article 50, the EU has to say yes. It probably will. But EU leaders have said the U.K. must provide a credible justification for an extension. Brussels would like to know what the U.K. wants, not just what it doesn’t want.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said Friday morning that he would appeal for EU leaders to agree to a long extension if the U.K. needs one to come up with a new exit plan. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said a long extension would give the U.K. a “reflection period” to consider what it wants. It takes only one EU member state to veto an extension.
What do MPs want?
It’s still very unclear.
All this has to be agreed on very soon. A decision by Brussels to grant an extension would be made at the EU summit on Thursday, March 21.
Could the U.K. still leave the EU with no deal?
MPs voted against a no-deal exit on Wednesday evening, but that was only an expression of opinion and did not change the law. A no-deal exit remains the default outcome if an agreement between the U.K. and EU is not signed by exit day — whenever that is, delay or not.
Will there be another general election?
Downing Street has said it is “not preparing for and we do not want a general election.”
But that does not mean one will not happen.
Charles Walker, a senior Tory lawmaker, has said May will have to hold one. “It is not sustainable, the current situation in Parliament,” he warned.
The opposition Labour Party has already tried and failed once to force a general election by putting forward a vote of no confidence in the government.
But Emily Thornberry, the shadow foreign secretary, said this week the party would “take every opportunity” to try again if it looked likely to succeed. And one Tory lawmaker said today he would “seriously consider” backing a fresh bid by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to get rid of May as prime minister.
A significant number of MPs want a second referendum, on the terms of an exit deal. But at the moment, not a majority of them.
On Thursday evening, MPs voted on an amendment to consider a second referendum, but it was rejected, which makes it very unlikely unless Brexit is delayed by much longer — 21 months, for example.
This is partly because there is not enough time for Parliament to legislate for a public vote on a deal before March 29 or June 30.
A long extension, however, could provide enough time for a people’s vote.
Will Article 50 be revoked?
Technically, the British government can unilaterally decide to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50. It does not need the EU to agree. But this seems the least likely of all options.
Will May resign?
May survived an attempt by some Tory lawmakers to oust her in December. Under party rules, that means she is safe from another challenge for 12 months.
But another defeat for her deal, a third in a row, could lead her to decide that the game is up and that it is time to quit. The Conservatives would then have to pick someone to replace her as prime minister.
Tory MP George Freeman piled on the pressure Thursday by suggesting that Parliament would be more likely to vote for her deal on the condition that she promise to quit after it is ratified.