Why extending Article 50 isn’t enough to prevent a no-deal Brexit

Parliament would still need to be able to agree on an alternative.

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Is there another way to avoid a no-deal exit on 29 March 2019? The Telegraph reports that conversations have begun between officials in the European Commission and here in the United Kingdom about the possibility of extending Article 50.

In addition to the so-called meaningful vote on the terms of the UK’s exit from the European Union, the British government also needs to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law, which requires not just one vote but for the bill to pass through both Houses of Parliament.

Extension, unlike revocation, cannot be done by the United Kingdom alone and requires unanimity from the other 27 nations of the EU, but would in reality be forthcoming should it be needed to take account of a general election, another referendum or if the United Kingdom can be said to have agreed the terms but not yet legally codified them, ie if parliament has passed the meaningful vote but not yet passed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill into law.

But it doesn’t free parliament from its need to agree on something in place of no deal, the legal default under the Article 50 process. An extension is available for the UK to facilitate a decision that has been reached: it isn’t available to extend discussions further. (In any case, one reason why Downing Street is reluctant to extend is that any extension will come with further political concessions, which will further complicate passing the Withdrawal Agreement.)

So what’s left to prevent no deal? The Labour leadership is rowing in behind Yvette Cooper’s amendment to the Finance Bill, which if passed, would mean that the government could not use its financial powers to implement no deal without first extending Article 50 or seeking a vote in the House of Commons.

The amendment has attracted support from MPs across the House including from both Remainers and Leavers, and includes supporters of every possible way out of the crisis (May’s deal, another referendum, May’s deal with a rewritten political declaration, general election) other than no deal, which means it is very likely to pass, but underlines why it won’t, in and of itself, prevent no deal. The only way parliament can do that is to agree to either go ahead with Brexit or to stop it.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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