From triggering to extending Article 50, there’s a scarcity of good news & options for the embattled May

Two and a half years on from the decision to Brexit, there is no greater clarity about what that actually means nor the form it will actually take.

What has become clear in the interim is that Britain’s political class is hopelessly and haplessly divided, devoid of political leaders on either side of the benches with sufficient stature, cunning and guile to navigate a clear course ahead.

On the BBC’s Inside Politics programme tonight, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern didn’t hold back with a withering assault on Theresa May for calling an unnecessary election and failing to properly engage with other party leaders to build support for her stance. But his main criticism was of her decision to start the countdown to Brexit by moving on Article 50 at a time when there was no clear plan nor sense of where the British government (and parliament) was headed:

The biggest mistake of all was triggering Article 50 before you had worked out the strategy, which was absolutely senseless, not necessary and has by and large led to where we are today.

His one-time partner at the helm of Anglo-Irish relationships, Tony Blair, is now publicly calling for the extension of Article 50 to buy more time. Given the absence of clear direction from Downing Street and Westminster, there is more than a little sense in Blair’s recommendation, not least given that each day is now bringing leaks of governmental advice and preparations for a No Deal Brexit that is escalating tensions across Ireland, Britain and the EU.

Yet there was a compelling reason for Theresa May moving to trigger Article 50 when she did.

By making March 29th 2019 the final date of British involvement in the EU, she ensured that the European elections scheduled for May 2019 could take place without Britain, with just over a third of the former UK MEP seats distributed proportionally across the EU (including two additional seats for the Republic of Ireland), with the remainder being held back for future expansion countries.

Whilst it is conceivable that the EU could agree to an Article 50 extension that ran during the course of the forthcoming European Parliament elections in May, it would be very difficult for them to agree to an extension beyond July as this is when the newly elected MEPs would take their seats. Anoosh Chakelian (New Statesman) believes there are specific circumstances in which the EU might consider that:

It’s thought the EU would only be willing to grant a longer extension beyond July if it were for the sake of making time for a general election or a second referendum – rather than simply letting discussions carry on or as a time-buying exercise.

In the scenario of a general election or referendum, the UK would have to write to the EU requesting an Article 50 extension, all member states would have to agree, and then the UK government would need to pass legislation to change the EU Withdrawal Act, in which the 29 March date is enshrined in law.

Mark Urban at the BBC has gone further, indicating that France and Germany are considering giving Britain an extra year.

Ironically, in this part of the world we are well used to kicking for extra time as a means to avoid an impending crisis. But our own experiences also show that extra time does not equate to resolving problems.

Extra time or no’, something’s gotta give.

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