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UK letters request, and argue against, Brexit extension

October 19, 2019

Johnson sent a trio of letters to the EU: one unsigned, requesting a Brexit extension, a copy of the law requiring him to request an extension and one arguing against an extension. The EU is now considering his request.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Image: imago images/PA Images/M. Crossick

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson sent three letters to the European Union on Saturday night after the UK Parliament forced him to request another Brexit delay.

The first of the letters sent to European Council President Donald Tusk contains the request for an extension that he is legally required to deliver. Johnson refused to sign the letter, which was a photocopy of a draft set out in UK law.

The second letter Johnson sent to the EU argues against granting an extension to the United Kingdom, saying that a further Brexit delay would be a mistake. The third message was sent by the British ambassador to the EU, Tim Barrow. 

"I have made clear since becoming prime minister and made clear to parliament again today, my view, and the government's position, that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us," Johnson said in the third letter, first tweeted out by the Financial Times' Brussels correspondent.

Read more: Brexit: 'Final say' rally draws thousands to central London

Tusk confirmed receipt of the letter containing the request for a Brexit extension and said he will now begin to discuss it with EU leaders.

Johnson has stressed that he wants Brexit to go ahead on October 31, with or without a deal negotiated with the EU. Michael Gove, the UK minister in charge of Brexit, echoed that sentiment in an interview with Sky news on Sunday.

"We are going to leave by Oct. 31st, we have the means and the ability to do so," Gove said. "That letter was sent because parliament required it to be sent (...) but parliament can't change the prime minister's mind, parliament can't change the government's policy or determination."

Johnson bound by law but unhappy about it

The UK government was legally obligated to request an extension of the Brexit deadline after lawmakers voted earlier on Saturday to delay Parliament's approval of the Brexit deal London negotiated with Brussels, which had been approved by European leaders on Thursday.

At an extraordinary Saturday parliamentary session, UK lawmakers voted 322-306 to withhold their approval of the Brexit deal until legislation regulating its implementation had passed. 

Johnson, who had said he would rather be "dead in a ditch" than delay Brexit again, made clear that he was sending the request letter under duress. 

Read moreBrexit, the Brits and another 'no' in the House of Commons

An aerial view shows Brexit accountability campaign group Led By Donkeys unfurling a large crowd banner, as a spoof of the government's advertising campaign
Brexit accountability campaign group Led By Donkeys unfurls a large crowd banner during Saturday's rally in LondonImage: Reuters/Led By Donckeys

Legislate transitional deal first, say lawmakers

The British Parliament's vote on Saturday was a move to stop the UK from leaving the EU by the October 31 deadline without a transitional deal in place, because the necessary legislation couldn't be ratified in time. 

A law passed last month compelled the UK government to request a three-month Brexit extension if lawmakers hadn't endorsed the new Brexit deal by Saturday. 

It is still possible to ratify the Brexit deal — both in the UK and EU Parliament — by the end of the month, but politicians in the UK and EU agree time is tight.

Corbyn calls deal 'race to bottom in regulations'

Frustrated EU leaders in no rush for extension

There is little chance that the 27 EU member states will refuse Johnson's request for a Brexit extension, but officials have made clear they will take their time.

"We won't be rushed by any request," said one EU diplomat. 

EU leaders could agree to any new Brexit date at an emergency summit that could possibly be convened next weekend. Their ambassadors met in Brussels on Sunday morning to discuss how to proceed. 

Read more: Brexit: France losing patience with UK uncertainty

European Council President Donald Tusk at the end of the EU leaders summit dominated by Brexit
European Council President Donald Tusk at the end of the EU leaders summit dominated by BrexitImage: Reuters/P. van de Wouw

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said "a good and orderly solution is still possible if Boris Johnson now reaches out to Parliament and seeks a cross-party solution."

In an interview with the mass-circulation Bild newspaper, Altmaier said Britain's ongoing political "power poker" game over Brexit was a threat to jobs and prosperity, adding that "if an extension by a few weeks is necessary, I wouldn't have a problem with it."

Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne also said "it makes sense to allow extra time" for London to deal with the negotiated Brexit agreement.

Read moreEU 'sorry' to see UK leave as leaders agree to Brexit deal

French President Emmanuel Macron has been outspoken about the need for "quick clarification of the British position on the accord." The president's office said Macron expressed to the British prime minister that "a delay would be in no one's interest."

Despite these misgivings, the EU has made clear that its first priority was to avoid any no-deal Brexit. For an extension to be granted, the EU leaders must be unanimously in favor of it. When asked whether there was a serious risk that Macron could refuse it, another EU official responded: "No." 

"If there is a chance of a deal, they will never choose no deal," said Nick Petre, spokesperson for the Renew Europe group of liberals in the European Parliament, of which Macron is a member.

How long will the extension last? 

There is a possibility that the EU could grant a monthlong "technical extension" until the end of November in order to maintain pressure on the UK to rubber-stamp the deal.

Read more: Will Brexit be worse for women?

One EU diplomat said the duration and conditions of an extension would depend on the purpose of the request.

"If we still hope to be able to salvage this deal, we'd be looking at shorter ones," the diplomat said. "Then, if we are looking at elections or second referendums, a longer one would most likely be needed. At this stage, it really depends on what happens in Britain in the coming hours."

In Brussels, many believe that any Brexit delay could not extend past mid-2020, because the bloc requires the rest of the year to prepare its long-term budget from 2021, and needs to know where the EU's relationship with the UK stands, financially and otherwise. 

mmc/sms (AP, Reuters)

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