New Brexit deadline set for 31 October: “EU unity has been preserved”, says Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel

The European Union and the United Kingdom have agreed to delay Brexit until October 31, 2019. The agreement was reached after tense negotiations in Brussels which went on through the night and into the early hours of Thursday morning.

The agreement avoids what would have been a potentially disastrous “no-deal” Brexit this Friday, the previously agreed-upon date for Britain leaving the European Union.

British Prime Minister Theresa May was effectively forced to request an extension to the Brexit process in order to get approval for a new withdrawal agreement from the British Parliament, which has rejected on three separate occasions the deal she had previously agreed with the EU. Her Conservative Party has recently opened negotiations with the UK’s Labour Party in order to find a way out of the current impasse.

During the Brussels summit, a majority of the EU 27 member states were in favour of an even longer extension to the Brexit process – possibly extending until the end of the calendar year, or even until this time next year – as was Donald Tusk, President of the European Council.

However, French President Emmanuel Macron refused to accept such a lengthy extension, claiming that Brexit was threatening the overall functioning of the Union as well as the possibility of a “European renaissance”.

Interestingly, Germany took lead among the group of nations favouring a long extension; arguably, the split between Germany and France, the two most powerful nations (other than the UK) currently in the EU, demonstrates that the earlier unity demonstrated by the 27 EU member states during the Brexit negotiations is beginning to fracture.

Belgium not opposed to lengthy Brexit delay

Belgium was not opposed to a long delay to the Brexit process if it was requested, but it also refused to accept that such an extension could be used by the British authorities as a pretext to take the European institutions hostage, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said yesterday.

The proposed extension is “flexible”, which means that the United Kingdom will be able to leave the Union on the first day of the month after the scheduled ratification of the withdrawal agreement by both parties on May 22. More specifically, if the United Kingdom is still a member of the EU after 22 May and has not ratified the withdrawal agreement, it will have to organise European elections if it is not to leave the EU on 1 June.

The agreement also offers guarantees that the UK will not take advantage of the extension to undermine the functioning of the EU and its institutions.

The agreement also states that the delay cannot be used as a platform to launch negotiations on the future relationship between the two parties, although the EU remains open changing its position on this point “if the United Kingdom’s position is to evolve” and its red lines move.

The agreement reached at the summit also stresses that London has an obligation to abide by the European treaties of which it is a signatory as long as the country remains a member of the EU. It also allows for the possibility of the other EU member states to discuss without London issues that will enter into force after Brexit, such as the multiannual budget or the future of the Union.

“EU showed great unity”

The 27 EU member states “showed great unity” to be able to reach the agreement last night, said the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel at the end of the summit in Brussels.

The only significant differences of opinion were on the issues of how to achieve the goal of reducing the risk of a no-deal Brexit, and between supporters of a long or short extension, Mr Michel said.

“There was certainly no anger directed against anyone; it was a calm meeting,” he told reporters last night.

The deadline of 31 October was chosen with the expected accession of the new European Commission the following day in mind, on 1 November.

Charles Michel welcomed the guarantees enshrined in the summit’s agreement to reduce the risk of disruption to the European institutions by the British authorities. “Technical and legal information provided by the Commission has shown that the possibilities that the UK has to take the EU institutions hostage are very small. But we will have to remain vigilant,” he said.