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EU decides UK's exit date

Editorial Staff

The EU is quietly laughing up its sleeve at yet another example of how it exercises control over the UK's withdrawal process. While EU leaders are selling it as a concession, the extension that the 27 countries that will remain in the Union have told the UK it can have comes with strings that impose conditions on the UK Parliament.

The EU27, as they have become known, have told the UK that Exit Day, currently set for 29th March, can be extended to 22 May but only if the UK Parliament accepts the withdrawal agreement, in the form that has already been rejected twice, no later than 29th March.

There is a consolation prize - but for those who think the deal negotiated by PM May is not good enough the consolation prize is not good enough. If the deal is not passed next week, the EU will extend the deadline under Article 50 until 12 April. Why? So that the EU can stand firm on its December 2018 position: get the deal done or come up with "a way forward" which is acceptable to all 27 remaining nations. There were persistent reports that some countries recognised the complexity of the withdrawal and would agree to a much longer delay, perhaps as long as to the end of this year. Others, didn't want to give an extension at all, it is rumoured.

But, there is some justification for the EU's timetable and it's got very little to do with principle of the UK's withdrawal. It's due to unfortunate timing.

This year, there are elections to the EU Parliament. If the UK is out, it gets no seats. If it's in, it must hold an election and send members to the EU parliament. The 12 April is one day before the UK must say if it's fielding candidates. The 22nd May is the day before EU Election Day. The question, then, is whether the UK is part of that election. The EU President Donald Tusk said that if the UK was not taking part in the elections, then "option of a long extension will automatically become impossible." It is simply a temporal mishap that places 29th March so close to those elections - and this re-emphasises that withdrawal is an extraordinarily complex process for which the UK is the Guinea pig: other countries considering the course of action, will have notes on pitfalls, one if which is clearly to serve an Article 50 notice to expire with as much of an EU parliamentary term unexpired as possible.

Whatever happens, there will need to be an amendment to the Withdrawal Act because, now, "exit day" will not be 29th March - but so far no one knows when it will be.

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