EU piles pressure on Theresa May by granting UK short Brexit delay

After hours of uncertainty, divisions and deliberation, the European Council agreed to extend Brexit Day until May 22nd, but only if the deal is approved by the UK parliament. If not then the Theresa May has until April 12th to come up with a new plan or take the UK out of Europe without a deal.

EU piles pressure on Theresa May by granting UK short Brexit delay
EU Commission President Juncker (L) and European Council President Tusk (R) speak during a press conference at the European Summit on March 21st 2019, in Brussels. Photo: Aris Oikonomou/AFP

There will be no Brexit for at least April 12th – just under three weeks. 

The EU unanimously agreed at the European Council summit in Brussels to approve a short extension to Article 50, albeit with distinct conditions.

Theresa May had requested an extension up until June 30th but EU leaders granted one until May 22nd if the framework for future cooperation, known as the Withdrawal Agreement or 'the deal', is approved by the House of Commons next week.

According to Reuters news agency Emmanuel Macron told fellow EU leaders that May only has a five percent chance of winning the vote next week, after hearing the prime minister's speech on Thursday.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council said Macron was being optimistic.

If British Prime Minister Theresa May cannot find consent for her deal among MPs, she will once again have to take her begging bowl to Brussels to seek a further extension and offer a clear plan to move forward by April 12th. 

“The European Council agrees to an extension until 22 May 2019, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week. If the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until 12 April 2019 and expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council,” reads a statement by the EU Council issued late on the night of Thursday March 21st.

Theresa May' now has to convince some of the 149 MPs who voted against her exit deal just 10 days ago to vote for the same deal. 

The brief respite means the UK will not crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29th as previously scheduled – although the specter of a no-deal scenario remains a distinct possibility given the UK parliament's inability to reach a compromise so far. 

“The European Council calls for work to be continued on preparedness and contingency at all levels for the consequences of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, taking into account all possible outcomes,” adds the EU Council's statement. 

The length of the extension was the subject of much discussion at the summit, with France and Belgium reportedly pushing for a May 7th Brexit Day, as supposed to May 22nd. The EU Council's decision to cut the period of extension requested by the UK government is designed to prevent the UK from having to hold EU parliamentary elections from May23rd to May 26th. 

French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that this was the last spin of the dice, warning that a no-deal scenario was the only alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement. “We have to be clear on Brexit, to ourselves, to our British friends and to our people. The Withdrawal Agreement cannot be renegotiated. If the UK votes negatively, we'll head towards a no-deal,” tweeted Macron. 

PM May will now attempt to get the same deal, which has been vehemently rejected so far by the UK lower house in two votes, approved by parliament next week. Rights activists representing the 1.2 million UK nationals in Europe and the 3.6 EU nationals in the UK are planning a March on Saturday in London. 

Meanwhile a petition to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit has reached nearly 2.5 million signatures in two days. 

READ ALSO: French president Macron warns of no-deal Brexit 'for sure' if British MPs reject May's deal

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Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

After years of campaigns and promises British citizens living abroad finally won the lifelong right to vote in UK general elections in April 2022. But campaigners say more needs to be done to allow all those Britons abroad to be able cast their votes easily.

Brits in Europe won right to vote for life in UK but questions remain

What’s in the law?

The Elections Act 2022 introduced several changes to the current legislation on electoral participation. Among these, it removed the rule by which British citizens lose their voting rights in the UK if they have lived abroad for more than 15 years

The new rules also abolished the requirement to have been previously registered in the UK electoral roll to become an overseas voter. In addition, the registration in the electoral roll will now last up to three years instead of only one year.

It is estimated that these changes could increase the number of overseas voter registrations by some 3 million. But the way new measures will be applied in practice is still to be defined.

READ ALSO: ‘Mixed feelings’ – British citizens in Europe finally get right to vote for life

Defining the practicalities

Under the new law, Britons living abroad will have to register to vote in the last place they were registered in the UK. This means that people who have never lived in the UK will be ineligible to vote, regardless of how long they have been overseas, while those who left when they were children will be able to use a parent or guardian’s address.

But given that the UK does not require residents to register with local councils, how to prove previous UK residence? “Typical documents accepted as a proof of residence are Council tax or utilities bills, but not everyone will have them or will have kept them in an international move,” says Fiona Godfrey, co-founder of the British in Europe coalition.

Ballot papers are pictured in stacks in a count centre as part of the 2019 UK general election. (Photo by ANDY BUCHANAN / AFP)

Other questions concern how people will effectively cast their ballot. UK citizens overseas will be able to vote by post or by proxy or in person at their polling station if they are in the UK at the time of the election. However, few people are likely to travel to the UK for an election and in the past there have problems and delays with postal voting.

The Electoral Commission has recommended that overseas electors appoint a proxy to vote on their behalf. But who could that be for people who have been away from their constituency for a long time?

New secondary legislation will have to answer these questions, defining how to be included in the electoral roll and how to exercise the voting right in practice.

According to British in Europe, the government should present draft legislation in the first half of the year so that the parliament can adopt it before summer and registrations of overseas voters can start in the autumn.

British in Europe survey

British in Europe are currently running a survey to understand the difficulties UK citizens abroad may face in the registration and voting process, as well as their intention to participate in elections.

The survey asks for instance which documents people can access to prove their previous residence in the UK, what problems they had voting in the past, and if and how they plan to vote in the future.

“We need to get an up-to-date picture of British citizens living around the world and have information to make recommendations to the government, as it prepares secondary legislation,” Godfrey said. “If millions of people will exercise their voting rights, there will be consequences for council registration offices, post office and authorities that will manage the process, among other things” she argued.

The right to vote concerns only UK parliamentary elections and national referendums, not elections in the devolved administrations of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, or at local level.

The survey is open to UK citizens living anywhere in the world and is available at this link.