The government can extend Article 50 – which means delaying the day Britain leaves the European Union beyond 29 March 2019. But even if there were a parliamentary majority for this, it’s not within MPs’ remit to unilaterally extend it. EU states have to unanimously agree to extending it.
So far, the government’s line has been against extending Article 50, with Theresa May repeatedly promising that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March. But following her deal’s defeat, she hasn’t ruled out an extension – with the Guardian noting that she appears to have softened her opposition to it somewhat, instead stating that the EU would extend Article 50 only if there were a plan moving towards a deal.
It’s been reported that the EU is willing to allow a short extension, but anything beyond July 2019 would be extremely tricky, as that’s when the new MEPs take their seats following the European Parliament elections in May – putting the UK’s role into question. How could it remain a member state without elected representatives? Some solutions have been mooted to this, but they each have their difficulties and EU members would have to unanimously agree.
It’s thought the EU would only be willing to grant a longer extension beyond July if it were for the sake of making time for a general election or a second referendum – rather than simply letting discussions carry on or as a time-buying exercise.
In the scenario of a general election or referendum, the UK would have to write to the EU requesting an Article 50 extension, all member states would have to agree, and then the UK government would need to pass legislation to change the EU Withdrawal Act, in which the 29 March date is enshrined in law.
So it’s certainly possible, but the political reality is that the UK would need to have a plausible plan on the horizon, or an election or referendum to justify the extra time.