Theresa May has granted MPs the chance to vote on an extension to Article 50 in the House of Commons this evening following two crushing defeats in as many days. On Tuesday, her Brexit deal was again rejected in the meaningful vote by a majority of 149, despite her securing crucial “legally binding” changes to the Irish backstop. Just hours before Attorney General Geoffrey Cox admitted the legal risk on the Irish backstop remained unchanged.
Last night, the rejection of a no deal Brexit was passed by 312 votes to 278, setting up another vote this evening on whether Brexit should be delayed beyond the proposed date of March 29.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the European Union may grant Britain a Brexit extension by nearly two years.
This would mean Britain participating in the upcoming European Parliament elections in May, with a presence there possibly prompting a rethink over its exit.
Mr Coveney told RTE radio: “If you have a long extension of Article 50, that opens up the debate in a much broader way to the overall approach that the United Kingdom takes to Brexit.
“That may facilitate a fundamental rethink, it may not, we just don’t know.
“If you have a long extension of, say 21 months to the end of 2020 – whatever the period would be – then Britain has a legal entitlement to have representation in the European Parliament.”
Ahead of this evening’s crunch vote, European Council President Donald Tusk suggested the EU may be prepared to offer a lengthy extension to Brexit negotiations if the UK wants to “rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it”.
Referring to the remaining European leaders who will meet Mrs May at next Thursday’s EU summit, Mr Tusk wrote on Twitter: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
A senior EU official told Reuters Mr Tusk, who is also chairing next week’s summit, believes Britain would need at least a year and possibly much longer to find a national consensus on how and whether it wants to quit the bloc.
But any extension to Brexit would depend on Mrs May lodging a request with the EU and would ultimately require Britain to elect members of the European Parliament when all states hold votes on May 23-26, the senior official added.
A possible extension would also require the unanimous support from the EU27.
In the run-up to the two-day summit, Mr Tusk will meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday, followed by Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday.
But a number of powerful European figureheads have expressed opposition to an extension beyond the upcoming European Parliament elections, including Mr Macron and Ms Merkel.
Mr Tusk is hoping Mrs May can somehow achieve the support for her Brexit deal to get it voted through Parliament during a possible third meaningful vote next week.
He believes a short extension to the EU exit process would achieve very little, but is urging leaders not to eliminate options to give Britain even more time.
This could involve holding a general election or even a new referendum on EU membership.