March 22, 2019 / 10:46 AM / 3 months ago

Breakingviews - Brexit extension sharpens Britain’s choices

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves after a news briefing after meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium March 22, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The European Union didn’t kick the Brexit can so much as nudge it. After another late-night summit in Brussels, leaders of 27 EU countries did what they do best and extended the deadline for a difficult decision. But by giving Theresa May’s government only two more weeks to agree a plan for leaving the bloc, they also sharpened Britain’s difficult choices.

There are several conclusions to be drawn from the European Council meeting that finished late on Thursday. First, the EU has all but given up on the Brexit deal it negotiated with May. After two crushing defeats, Britain’s prime minister is expected to try again to secure parliamentary support for the deal next week. But EU leaders hold out little hope. French President Emmanuel Macron told his counterparts that after listening to May he had reduced the likelihood of her winning the vote from 10 percent to 5 percent, Reuters reported.

The second conclusion is that the EU is keen to avoid a no-deal Brexit – or at least to avoid being blamed for that outcome. In an ill-judged television address on Wednesday night, May suggested that such a “no deal” Brexit was the most credible alternative to her plan. But by shifting the Brexit deadline from March 29 to April 12, the EU blunted that threat and gave the UK parliament two more weeks to find a consensus. European Council President Donald Tusk also dangled the possibility of a longer extension, but only if Britain agreed to take part in European Parliament elections at the end of May.

For all the shuffling of dates, Britain’s Brexit choices remain essentially the same. It can approve a version of the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated. It can decide to stay in the EU, probably after holding another referendum: on Thursday more than 2 million people signed an online petition to cancel Brexit. Or Britain can crash out of the EU without a deal. That risk has been postponed, but not removed.

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