Remainers and Leavers face a common problem: a lack of time. The UK triggered Article 50 recklessly early, before the cabinet had even agreed a negotiating stance. Britain is now left with just eight months until the two-year deadline for Brexit elapses (29 March 2019) and Theresa May’s “Chequers plan” commands the support of neither parliament nor the EU. The spectre of “no deal” haunts Westminster.
Faced with this, an increasing number of Labour and Conservative MPs advocate a “people’s vote” on whether the UK should leave at all. But there is little time in which to stage one. The original EU referendum bill took seven months to pass through parliament, and MPs will not return from the summer recess until 5 September. A campaign period of around 10 weeks (the Electoral Commission’s suggested length) would then be required. Though it is theoretically possible for parliament to pass the legislation in time, the practical and political obstacles are immense.
But there is an escape route: the extension of Article 50. Though this requires the unanimous approval of the other 27 EU member states, Remainers are confident this could be achieved. The Labour MP Chuka Umunna, a vocal campaigner against hard Brexit, told me: “Pro-European MPs across the House have spoken to pretty much every single government – either to the foreign minister, EU minister or head of government – and they are all confirming that if we need more time for our democratic processes to be followed, we will get it. We’re not worried about getting an extension for that purpose.”
On the Today programme this morning, Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, explicitly stated: “If Britain asks for more time, and if that’s necessary to get to a sensible agreement, well then we would support that.”
EU officials have long privately indicated that they would be prepared to extend the Article 50 period – but only if this is combined with a dramatic change in strategy (such as a new referendum, an early general election or a soft Brexit). For Brussels, the most desirable outcome remains continued British membership. What the EU will not permit is the extension of Article 50 merely to allow the UK to “kick the can down the road” in the hope that “something will turn up”.
For Britain, continued EU membership beyond March 2019 would clash with the next European Parliament elections in May. But Labour MP and Brexit select committee member Stephen Kinnock pointed to a European Council resolution on 13 April which he says “paves the way for British candidates to stand if the UK is still a member”. An alternative option would be for the UK’s existing MEPs to simply have their terms extended beyond 2019.
The extension of Article 50 is, then, a viable strategy for Remainers. But it is not for hard Brexiteers. Time alone would not allow them to deliver the undeliverable promises made during the referendum campaign: withdrawal from the customs union and the single market without the creation of a hard Irish border. But for Remainers, the challenge of securing – and then winning – a second referendum is no less formidable.