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11 February 2019

What happens if Brexit is delayed until after the European elections?

The reality is that it only becomes a problem after 30 June. 

By Stephen Bush

Under the Article 50 process, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union on the stroke of midnight on 29 March 2019 Central European Time, whether or not the government has signed and ratified an exit deal.

But many people think that what will actually happen is that the Article 50 process will be extended to give the United Kingdom more time. Although the impact of a no-deal exit would be felt most severely by the UK, it would also have repercussions across the bloc, and no one is going to force a no-deal exit on the UK if it doesn’t want one. 

The expectation of several European diplomats spoken to by the NS is that the UK will ultimately need a technical extension, lasting no longer than a few weeks, to pass the relevant legislation in order to avert a no-deal exit. (In addition to winning the meaningful vote on the deal, the government must also pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which gives legal effect to the accord, through both Houses of Parliament.)

But what if the United Kingdom ends up needing longer and is still in the European Union on 23 May, when the next set of elections to the European Parliament are?

Both the major parties are understandably reluctant to have another set of European elections. It’s a familiar refrain among backbench MPs in Leave constituencies that their voters would neither understand nor forgive why, almost three years after the Brexit vote, they were being sent polling cards for election to the European Parliament. At the top of both parties, there is an added concern that elections to the European Parliament are the only proportional contest held across the whole of the United Kingdom, and could provide an ideal launchpad for any number of new parties, ranging from supporters of a second referendum to opponents of May’s Brexit deal.

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European parliamentary elections would also present a logistical headache for the EU as our seats in the European Parliament have been reallocated around the bloc.

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But going without British MEPs also creates legal problems. The difficulty stems from a 1999 European Court of Human Rights case – Matthews versus United Kingdom – in which Denise Matthews, a British woman living in Gibraltar, successfully sued the British government for discrimination on the grounds that Gibraltarians had no vote in European elections. As a result, Gibraltarians now have the same right to vote as other British citizens; their votes are counted as part of the South West region.

The European Court of Justice essentially upheld that reasoning when the Spanish government challenged the verdict in 2004. So extension comes with a hard limit of 30 June, when this present incarnation of the European Parliament will formally cease to be, ahead of the new European Parliament being sworn in on 1 July.