New 'Brextension' gives UK Oct 31 Brexit deadline
London, Apr 11: It is neither as short as British Prime Minister Theresa May had hoped for - until June 30, or as long as some EU leaders were in favour of, but after hours of deliberation in Brussels, the 28-member economic bloc gave the UK six more months to thrash out Brexit.
The latest extension, being dubbed a "Brextension" and also drawing inevitable Halloween analogies with the date coinciding with the festival celebrating scary and nightmare scenarios, comes just a day before the April 12 deadline from the first extension agreed by the European Union (EU) to the official Brexit Day of March 29.
"Vitally, the EU has agreed that the extension can be terminated when the Withdrawal Agreement has been ratified — which was my key request of my fellow leaders," May said in a statement in the early hours of Thursday at the end of a European Council summit.
"I know that there is huge frustration from many people that I had to request this extension. The UK should have left the EU by now and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way. But the choices we now face are stark and the timetable is clear," she said.
The British Prime Minister, set for a House of Commons statement to formally update MPs on the latest development, continues to battle mounting pressure from different sides of her own Conservative Party to step away from Downing Street and make way for a different Tory leader to deploy a fresh strategy to Brexit.
The latest extension will only intensify these voices, with May herself on record as saying that as Prime Minister, she could not agree to a longer extension than June 30 – the date before Members of European Parliament (MEPs) take their seats in a newly-formed Parliament following European elections set for May 23.
The latest extension until October 31 makes it more likely that the UK would have to contest the European elections next month, something none of the British political parties were looking forward to in light of the June 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said: "There will probably be a European election in the UK – that might seem a bit odd, but rules are rules and we must respect European law and then we will see what happens".
However, the latest EU offer does mean that the fear of a no-deal crash-out of the UK from the 28-member bloc has been averted for the moment but the EU stressed that once again the ball was in Britain's court and it must make the best use of the extra time.
European Council president Donald Tusk was categorical in his message: "The course of action will be entirely in the UK's hands: They can still ratify the withdrawal agreement, in which case the extension can be terminated.
"Let me finish with a message to our British friends: This extension is as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected, but it's still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time".
The EU itself had been split over the length of delay to offer the UK and by law they had to reach a unanimous decision. Although other EU countries backed a longer delay, French President Emmanuel Macron pushed for a shorter extension, with October 31 being settled upon as a compromise.
MPs in Britain continue to be opposed to the Withdrawal Agreement finalised by May with the EU in November 2018 and have rejected the so-called divorce bill three times since January this year.
One of the most contentious parts of the plan is the Irish backstop, an insurance policy that aims to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland between EU member-country -- the Irish Republic and UK territory -- Northern Ireland.
Brexiteers fear it would be used by the EU to keep Britain tied to its norms even after Brexit.
With the House of Commons also strongly opposed to crashing out of the EU without a deal, having rejected that prospect in parliamentary votes, May reached out to the Opposition Labour Party to hold cross-party talks in an attempt to find a solution to the parliamentary deadlock.
Reflecting some of her own frustrations over the issue, she admitted that the next few weeks will not be easy and there was no "simple way to break the deadlock in Parliament".
"But we have a duty as politicians to find a way to fulfil the democratic decision of the Referendum, deliver Brexit and move our country forward. Nothing is more pressing or more vital," May said.
As the UK Parliament breaks up for its Easter break until April 23, the cross-party talks will carry on in the hope for a breakthrough.