BREXIT UPDATE 15: The Eleventh Hour: Guest Post by Deborah Maccoby

March 21, 2019

In Uncategorized


Brexit Update 14, posted on Wednesday afternoon (March 20) reported news of the letter sent on that day by the Maybot to Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, asking for a three-month extension to Article 50.  Since then, there have been three main developments.

1)  The Emergency Debate late on Wednesday afternoon.  Keir Starmer, the Brexit Secretary, who secured the Emergency Debate, pointed out in his opening statements that the wording of the government motion that had been overwhelmingly passed on Thursday March 14 gave a clear impression that the position was that: (1) if her deal was passed by Parliament by March 20  – that very day — the Prime Minister would seek a technical extension of three months in order to sort out legislation; but (2) if the deal was not passed by March 20, she would seek a longer delay.  Instead, she had “done the opposite”; without any consultation with Parliament, she had sent to Donald Tusk that day a letter requesting a three month extension. As Starmer pointed out, her plan seemed to be that, if she could secure a three-month extension till June 30, this would mean a difference in the status of her deal (together with, she hoped, some progress in persuading MPs to support the Withdrawal Agreement), so she would then, in her view, be justified in bringing the deal back to the House of Commons for Meaningful Vote 3.

In his conclusion, Starmer summed up the debate:

“I think that there is a clear theme: a deep concern about the course of action that the Government are pursuing.  It is reckless to seek just a short extension for the purposes of putting the same deal back up and to introduce a new cliff edge at the end of the exercise, and it does increase the risk of no deal….I hope that the Government has been listening to the debate, and I hope that they will – even at this eleventh hour – reflect on the course of action and take a different course, which is to recognise that this deal is not fit to be put before the House for a third time, and that the alternative course of providing a process so that the House can come together, find a majority, move forward and break the impasse is needed now more than ever.”

In his opening statements, he had said that Labour wanted an extension that would be as short as possible – but the length should provide time for Parliament to debate and agree on a way forward; the length must be determined by the purpose, instead of allowing the clock to dictate events.[1]

2)  Instead of reaching out in genuine discussions with MPs about the current chaotic and uncertain situation, the Maybot (who did not attend the Emergency Debate) has infuriated them by a statement delivered at 8.30pm last night not to Parliament but directly to the British public – a desperate appeal over the heads of MPs to the people.  As we have seen, she has run down the clock for months in her doomed attempt to force Parliament to accept her deal, as, she alleges, the only alternative to either No Deal or No Brexit.  She is now  proposing to bring it back for a third time — and potentially many more times — together with amendable motion after amendable motion, in a “Groundhog Day” strategy intended to wear down the House of Commons until it finally passes her deal out of sheer exhaustion and despair.  But in her statement she puts all the blame on MPs, for not accepting her deal immediately.  She paints a picture of an out-of-touch House of Commons, engaged in “arcane procedural rows” just for the sake of it, not in the attempt to prevent her leading the country into a disastrous No Deal:

“You, the public, have had enough.  You’re tired of the infighting, the political games, the arcane procedural rows….motion after motion and amendment after amendment have been tabled without Parliament ever deciding what it wants”.[2]

How she imagines that putting all the blame on MPs for the current mess will win them over to pass her deal (on the third attempt if/when it happens) no-one knows.

3)  Tusk’s statement issued yesterday (March 20) in response to the Maybot’s letter.  Here is the text of Tusk’s statement:

Today I received a letter from Prime Minister May, in which she addresses the European council with two requests: to approve the so-called Strasbourg agreement between the UK and the European commission, and to extend the Article 50 period until 30 June 2019.

Just now I had a phone call with Prime Minister May about these proposals.

In the light of the consultations that I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension would be possible.

But it would be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons.

The question remains open as to the duration of such an extension.

At this time, I do not foresee an extraordinary European council.

If the leaders approve my recommendations and there is a positive vote in the House of Commons next week, we can finalise and formalise the decision on extension in the written procedure.

However, if there is such a need, I will not hesitate to invite the members of the European council for a meeting to Brussels next week.

Although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking until the very last moment a positive solution – of course, without opening up the withdrawal agreement.

We have reacted with patience and goodwill to numerous turns of events and I am confident that also now we will not lack the same patience and goodwill at this most critical point in this process.

By making the three-month extension conditional on the passing of the deal in Meaningful Vote 3,  Tusk has actually returned the situation to where it was in the motion overwhelmingly agreed by Parliament on March 14.  The motion had stated that only if the deal was agreed by Parliament would the government seek a three-month technical extension from the EU.  As Starmer pointed out, May had tried to reverse this process: extension first, then the passing of the deal.

Tusk does not rule out a long extension.  He says he hopes there will not be a need for an “extraordinary European council meeting” next week, but says later that “if there is such a need, I will not hesitate to invite the members of the European Council for a meeting to Brussels next week”.  The Brexit leaving date is Friday March 29, at the end of next week.  The implication of Tusk’s statement is that no momentous decisions will be taken at the Council meeting today (March 21).  But it is very possible that Tusk will summon an emergency meeting of the European Council of Ministers on March 28 in order to save the UK “at the eleventh hour” (in Starmer’s phrase) from exiting the EU without a deal.  The outcome could well be a long extension.