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Article 50 extension, anyone?



Since it’s a thing once again, let’s talk Article 50 extension.


So, this is one of a group of means of lengthening (in the largest sense) the Brexit process.

However, it’s very particular, because it involves lengthening the period that the UK is a member of the European Union.

You’ll recall the 2 year period that we’ve got. That comes from the Article 50 itself, which says 2 years after notifying the European Union it wants to leave, a state will leave (unless otherwise agree).

That’s designed to protect the sovereign right of the state.

The 2 years bit is to allow time to deal with all the detail of unpicking relations.

And because no-one knew whether that might be the right amount of time, there’s a mechanism to allow for more time.

That mechanism is simply the unanimous agreement of the departing state and the remaining EU members.

Procedurally, it is a doddle: a statement from the European Council, signed by all involved.

That extension can be of any length, so it is super-flexible.

Great stuff.

However, problems abound.

The biggest is that one of the few points of agreement within the UK government right now is that EU membership ends on 29 March 2019 (i.e. 2 years after notification).


There would have to be some exceptionally good reasons to justify the UK support for an extension, probably grounded in the need for a very short period (weeks maybe) to allow for ratification.


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That suggests, politically, that it would have to be the UK government that requests an Article 50 extension, rather than anyone on the EU side. And right now that is not on the cards.


The second big issue is that any extension of more than a couple of months runs into the sticky problem of the European Parliament elections in 2019.

If the UK is still a member then, then it should have elected MEPs to take those roles.

But if they’re not going to sit for more than a few weeks, why bother?

Moreover, the seats for the UK have been partly reallocated to other members, so there is now a space issue too.

This might all be manageable by having nominated (not elected) MEPs for the period, and suspending the reallocation until it ends, but that’s all rather messy and legally fraught.

Finally, getting unanimity from the EU members states might not be such ‘a doddle’.

While no one particularly wants another crisis on their doorstep caused by a no-deal exit, there are member states that might feel either they can get something out of their consent, or who have had enough of it all.


We will not run through all the possible vetoes here, but it is worth keeping in mind both the domestic politics and inter-state politics dimensions.

Politicians always have to keep domestic audiences onside.

And there is not a whole lot of love between EU members right now, e.g. on migration, Russia, Trump, etc.

To pull this together: An Article 50 extension isn’t complex to do, in practical terms.

But it is, in political terms.🔷


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(This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected.)


(Cover: Dreamstime/Florin Seitan.)


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Associate Dean, Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Surrey and Deputy Director of the ESRC's 'UK in a Changing Europe' programme.
Guildford, UK. Website

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