After the defeat of the Prime Minister’s revised withdrawal deal last night, Parliament today votes on whether to accept a no-deal exit from the EU on 29 March, and, if not, it will proceed to a third vote tomorrow on whether to ask the EU for an extension to the article 50 notice. Today’s vote is a free vote for MPs of the Conservative and Unionist Party and it is likely that the House will vote not to exit on 29 March without a deal.
The crunch comes with the third vote. An extension has to be asked for otherwise whatever Parliament decides we are out of the EU at 11 pm on 29 March. An extension for how long? Will the EU Member States grant such an extension, something that requires unanimity among the 27? Mr Juncker has indicated that a short extension might be possible, up to extension the elections for Members of the European Parliament, which run between 23 and 26 May – it is almost inconceivable that the UK could participate in these. It is possible that the extension could be granted up to 30 June the day before the new Parliament sits. There have been other indications that an extension will only be granted if the UK can explain what the purpose of the extension sought would be.
It should also be noted that, as held by the ECJ in Case C-621/18 Wightman and Others v Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the UK would still remain free unilaterally to withdraw its notice under article 50 “as long as the two-year period from the date of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU, and any possible extension, has not expired.”
If a short extension is granted, the UK would have to amend the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 accordingly. Furthermore, it is likely that the EU Member States would feel unable to grant a further extension as EU Member States are required to participate in the elections to the European Parliament. If the UK were to remain in the EU beyond 1 July, it would be required to hold the elections to the European Parliament but that would raise problems with the number of MEPs. Under Plan A, the current elections allocate seats to countries on the assumption that the UK will not be a Member State at the date of the elections. There is a Plan B to allow for elections on the basis of the 2014-19 allocation in the event that the UK is still a Member State at that date. If Plan B comes into effect, 73 UK MEPs have to be elected, and 73 MEPs in other Member States elected under Plan A have to pack their backs and go home.
Whatever the results of the votes today and tomorrow, the prospect of a no-deal exit from the EU remains, whether on 29 March, 24 May or 1 July.