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European Council President Donald Tusk will reportedly suggest to EU27 leaders to offer the UK a ‘flextension’, a one-year-long extension to Article 50 which would require the UK to hold European Parliament elections, but which would give the UK the option to leave the EU as soon as the House of Commons approves the Withdrawal Agreement. The Guardian quotes Tusk telling senior EU figures, “The only reasonable way out would be a long but flexible extension…I would call it a ‘flextension’. How would it work in practice? We could give the UK a year-long extension, automatically terminated once the Withdrawal Agreement has been accepted and ratified by the House of Commons.”
This comes as Prime Minister Theresa May has this morning written to Tusk to demand a further extension to Article 50 until 30 June. May wrote that in the case the UK is still a member of the EU on 23 May, it accepts holding European elections, adding, “the Government is undertaking the lawful and responsible preparations for this contingency.”
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told Sky News, “We still hope to leave the EU within the next couple of months…But if we cannot find a way through in Parliament, we don’t have a choice,” adding, “[A long extension] is not our first choice. Our first choice is to leave quickly.”
Elsewhere, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told the BBC yesterday that an Article 50 extension was likely to be “longer than just a few weeks or months,” adding that Prime Minister Theresa May “would have little choice but to accept the extension that she’s offered.” The Times reports that a number of ministers, including Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove, have met to discuss how a long extension could be blocked. Williamson said, “I’d like to make sure we get out in April or May. We have that opportunity to do that, we have a deal that’s there — I very much hope that is something that can be looked at and passed.”
Separately, after meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “We will do everything in order to prevent… Britain crashing out of the European Union,” adding, “But we have to do this together with Britain and with their position that they will present to us.” Varadkar added, “Any further [Article 50] extension must require and must have a credible and realistic way forward.”
This comes as the bill tabled by Labour MP Yvette Cooper to force the Prime Minister to seek an extension to Article 50, which passed through the House of Commons on Wednesday, had its second reading in the House of Lords yesterday. It will have its third reading and go through committee and report stages on Monday.
Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe told Al Jazeera English yesterday, “In all likelihood if there is a long extension it will be possible for Britain to leave at any time from the moment [the UK Parliament] approves the Withdrawal Agreement, or an updated version of it.”
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25 Labour MPs, including seven shadow ministers, have written to the party’s leader, Jeremy Corbyn, urging him to “go the extra step” in talks with Prime Minister Theresa May and achieve a “sensible deal.” The 25 MPs, almost all from constituencies that voted to leave the EU, reminded Corbyn of his previous commitment to support a deal which guaranteed “a customs union and no hard border in Ireland,” the protection of jobs and workers, and the safeguarding of environmental and consumer standards. The letter argues that Corbyn should seek to “avoid fighting the European elections,” adding, “Delaying for many months in the hope of a second referendum will simply divide the country further and add uncertainty for business.”
May is expected to write to Corbyn today to set out the Government’s offer on Brexit. A Government source suggested that the offer would include the proposal of a confirmatory referendum on any Brexit deal as an option in indicative votes next week, if a cross-party deal cannot be agreed.
Elsewhere, Buzzfeed reports that the Government, in talks with Labour, has explored the idea of a “devo lock” – a mechanism which would require the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to give their consent before the UK could leave a customs union with the EU in the future.
The UK might have to withdraw troops from Operation Althea, an EU-led military operation in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the event of a No Deal Brexit. According to Buzzfeed News, plans to work around a possible UK withdrawal were discussed by ambassadors from the EU27 on Wednesday. A Ministry of Defence (MoD) spokesperson said, “The UK fully supports Operation Althea and its objectives and will continue to do so after we leave the EU,” but added, “in the event of a No Deal Brexit an additional agreement with the EU would be required for UK troops to continue in the Operation. We are open to reaching such an agreement.” The MoD spokesperson added that the UK’s other commitments in the Western Balkans, such as its support to NATO’s mission in Kosovo, will not be affected by Brexit. This comes after command of Operation Althea was transferred on 29 March from UK General Sir James Everard to French Lieutenant General Olivier Rittimann.
Elsewhere, the Irish Central Bank warned yesterday that a No Deal Brexit would see sterling drop to near-parity with the Euro. It also downgraded its forecast for annual growth in Ireland from 4.4% to 4.2%, citing uncertainty over the global economy, but especially over Brexit.
The European Commission Vice-President for Jobs, Growth, Investment and Competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen, yesterday said that a “Hard Brexit is increasingly possible because we don’t know what the alternative is,” adding, “You only know what Britain doesn’t want, but you don’t know what Britain wants and, taking into account the limited number of days we have available, it is logical to think we are rushing towards a hard Brexit. But hopefully I am wrong.” He also said that the EU had been preparing for all Brexit scenarios, and outlined measures that would be taken to guarantee health and food safety in the event of a No Deal Brexit.
The demand for new cars in the UK in the month of March has fallen to its lowest level in six years, a situation which has been attributed to uncertainty over Brexit as well as the ongoing uncertainty over the future of diesel vehicles. The chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers, Mike Hawes, said yesterday, “March is a key barometer for the new car market, so this fall is of clear concern,” adding that the carmaking sector “urgently” needed “an end to the political and economic uncertainty by removing the threat of a No Deal Brexit.”
In a new blog, Open Europe’s Marcus Cadier writes, “The European Parliament elections in Sweden will take place against a backdrop of public disenchantment with the direction of the European ‘project’ (and, of course, Brexit). A recent survey has shown that 48% of Swedes think that the EU is developing in a negative direction, while only 29% see it as moving in a positive direction.” He adds, “The parties which are most Eurosceptic are likely to improve their position at the same time as they are toning down their calls for the most radical policy of Swedish withdrawal from the EU. While this underlines that most Swedes are not actually in favour of leaving but wish to see the EU reformed, there should also be cause for concern amongst the Swedish elite.” He concludes, “It is safe to say that even if the Left Party and Sweden Democrats have paused their outright opposition to Swedish EU membership, their programmes are fundamentally at odds with the current EU consensus. Swexit may be off the political menu but this is missing the point: Swexit was never really on the agenda. However, Euroscepticism of various shades looks likely to be as strong as ever.”