April 11, 2019 / 11:24 AM / 4 months ago

Breakingviews - Brexit extension lets UK remain in name only

British Prime Minister Theresa May holds a news conference following an extraordinary European Union leaders summit to discuss Brexit, in Brussels, Belgium April 11, 2019. REUTERS/Yves Herman

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - The latest Brexit extension lets Britain remain in name only. Postponing the country’s departure from the European Union to October 31 avoids a chaotic exit and gives it more time to find a way out of the impasse. In the meantime, though, it will be largely reduced to a spectator.

The second delay to Britain’s withdrawal deadline, granted early on Thursday morning after another late-night Brussels summit, ensures it remains an EU member almost three years after voting to leave. In theory the six-month extension gives Prime Minister Theresa May time to find a compromise that would enable parliament to approve her withdrawal deal. That seems unlikely: lawmakers have rejected the plan three times, while talks with the opposition Labour party have made little progress.

With the deadline pushed beyond the summer, politicians may attempt to change the electoral arithmetic. The ruling Conservative party could dump May then call an election under a new leader to seek a mandate for a version of Brexit. Or lawmakers may finally conclude that the best way to break the deadlock is to hold another referendum.

Elections for the European Parliament, due to be held at the end of May, could prove a test of the public mood. British voters will have the opportunity to vote for pro-Brexit groups or support Change UK, the new centrist party set up by former Labour and Conservative parliamentarians.

A commitment to participate in the elections is one of the EU’s conditions for extending Britain’s membership of the bloc. The other is a vague commitment for the country to “act in a constructive and responsible manner”. In reality, Britain will be mostly excluded from discussions about the EU’s future, such as the make-up of the next European Commission, until its status is resolved.

The end of October may not even be a final deadline. If Britain is still unable to reach a decision, it could seek another extension. However, last night’s discussions in Brussels show leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron are increasingly impatient with Britain loitering in the departure lounge. Supporters of a hard Brexit often warn that accepting May’s deal would mean the country remains an EU member in all but name. For the next six months, however, Britain’s continuing membership will be reduced to little more than a symbol.

Breakingviews

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