Theresa May rules out extending Article 50 period

But with the clock ticking, extending the Article 50 period may be the simplest way forward to achieve the status quo whilst allowing more time for negotiations.

As the Article 50 clock ticks on, there has been increasing discussion about what happens on 30 March 2019, the date the UK is due to leave the EU. Yesterday, the threat of ‘no deal’ resurfaced and made the front pages of various newspapers. Both sides say they want a transition deal although there still seems to be uncertainty in the UK government about what this transition deal should look like. There has also been discussion about whether a transition deal is even the best way to move forward with some arguing that extending the Article 50 period may be the most viable solution. At PMQs today, Theresa May noted that it was possible to extend negotiations. However, as the Guardian Politics live blog reports, she ruled this option out saying the UK will leave by March 2019.

But could the prime minister be ruling this out too soon? In an interview with Bloomberg, former Irish taoiseach, John Bruton, said agreeing a transition period would not be easy. Not only would it need to be approved by all 27 members of the EU, it may also need to be approved by some of their parliaments. In addition to this, it would also need to be compliant with WTO rules.

Instead of a transition period, Bruton said: “The simplest thing may in fact be for Britain to simply stay in the European Union by extending the negotiating period from two years to six.” He said this would avoid complications with the World Trade Organisation. Indeed, issues have already arisen with other WTO members saying they objected to a UK-EU proposal over splitting tariff rate quotas.

Bruton added: “… it is very difficult to draft a transition agreement until you know what you’re transitioning too. And Britain needs to make up its mind, somehow, about that. And that’s difficult given the situation in the House of Commons.”

In his blog for the Financial Times, EU law expert David Allen Green explains some of the problems of implementing a transition deal. If you haven’t read it already, it’s worth doing so.

Extending the Article 50 period would still need to be agreed by all remaining 27 members of the EU. However, as Bruton suggests, it’s unlikely to require involvement of any country other than the UK and EU.

Here’s the relevant wording in the treaty:

The Treaties shall cease to apply to the State in question from the date of entry into force of the withdrawal agreement or, failing that, two years after the notification referred to in paragraph 2, unless the European Council, in agreement with the Member State concerned, unanimously decides to extend this period.”

Debate also continues about whether the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50. In a fact sheet about Article 50 produced by the European commission, it said: “once triggered, it cannot be unilaterally reversed” and added “Article 50 does not provide for the unilateral withdrawal of notification”. This doesn’t quite mean triggering Article 50 is a point of no return. It simply suggests that revoking Article 50 would need the agreement of the EU.

It’s unclear whether the UK is also of this view. The Guardian reports the government has been sent a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about whether it had received legal advice about whether the UK could unilaterally revoke Article 50. However, as the Independent reports, a spokesman for the prime minister refused to say whether this was true saying “we never comment on government legal advice.” The spokesman added: “If FOIs have been submitted, it will be dealt with in the usual way.”

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Image: © Twocoms /
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