In Depth

Article 50: will it be extended or revoked?

UK will leave the EU on 31 October if the process can’t be halted

Boris Johnson is searching for a way around a new law designed to prevent him from taking Britain out of the EU without a deal on 31 October.

Parliament passed a bill earlier this month demanding that the prime minister must ask Brussels to push back the Brexit deadline to 31 January if he cannot reach a withdrawal agreement with the bloc and MPs don’t vote for no-deal. 

But Johnson has insisted the UK will leave the bloc at the end of October with deal or no deal - sparking fears that he may be prepared to snub the legislation.

Asked if the Government would obey the legislation, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab told the BBC Today programme: “We’ve been clear we’ll comply with the law, but the prime minister has been absolutely clear we need to bring this process to some finality.”

Raab added: “We’re also going to be very clear with our EU partners that we leave at the end of October.”

What is not clear is how these two positions can be reconciled.

Earlier this year, a petition to revoke Article 50 and keep the UK in the EU gained more than six million signatures, becoming the most-signed petition to the UK Parliament on record.

So will Johnson ask the EU for a Brexit extension - and would he get one?

Could Article 50 be easily extended?

Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, commonly known as the Lisbon Treaty, is the legal mechanism by which a member state can quit the bloc.

The European Court of Justice ruled last December that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 if it wants, effectively cancelling Brexit.

But the ruling said the revocation must be “unequivocal and unconditional”, suggesting that the UK cannot revoke Article 50 to buy more time.

And extending the process - rather than stopping it - requires the unanimous agreement of the European Council, the grouping of all 27 EU countries.

The UK government also needs to extend the exit date in UK law, which it did when it passed the new Brexit bill earlier this month.

Would the EU grant an extension?

No-deal Brexit would hurt the EU, and member state Ireland would suffer an economic blow almost as big as the UK, says the Institute for Government.

But while the members of the bloc are keen to avoid an expensive and time-consuming no-deal, some are losing patience - as even Johnson recognises.

The PM this week told the BBC: “I think that [the EU] have had a bellyful of all this stuff. You know they want to develop a new relationship with the UK. They’re fed up with these endless negotiations, endless delays.”

French President Emmanuel Macron has already threatened not to grant an Article 50 extension, The Independent reports.

“The situation of the UK as a member state becomes every day more awkward and strained,” the former French ambassador to the EU, Pierre Sellal, warned earlier this month.

“In this regard, I believe that the situation has been deteriorating. It is very difficult to have the necessary trust that could justify a new examination of a new date,” he added.

So will it be extended and for how long?

The UK’s default position is still to leave the bloc on 31 October, despite the new law requiring the PM to ask for an extension.

But unless Johnson can come up with a workable Plan B soon - or unless he defies the law - he will have to ask the EU to let Britain remain a member until late January.

His best bet is to agree a new deal with the EU, and he has insisted that “there is a way”. But a government source told the BBC that the gap the UK and Brussels needed to bridge to reach an agreement “remains quite large”.

And even if Johnson secured a new deal, it would be unlikely to be very different from Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, which MPs rejected three times because of EU reluctance to remove the Irish backstop. Now that a law has been passed aimed at taking no-deal off the table, MPs are even less likely to back a compromise with which they are unhappy.

There’s also little likelihood of Johnson getting a no-deal majority in Parliament. Given that MPs voted earlier this month against crashing out, the odds are low that they will have a change of heart before 19 October - the date on which Johnson may be obliged to request the new Brexit deadline.

And for all Macron’s bullish talk, it is unlikely he would veto an Article 50 extension and risk the ire of his EU allies.

As such, extending Article 50 may be the only option that remains for the UK and EU.

That’s certainly the opinion of the bookmakers. Odds on the UK leaving the EU by 31 October are currently at 19/10 (£2.90 return for every £1 bet) while the odds of staying beyond Halloween are 4/11 (£1.36 return for every £1 bet).

What happens at the end of the extension?

If a deal has been reached, the UK will exit the EU on those terms. If a deal hasn’t been reached, the country will be in the same position that it is now.

As a general election is likely to take place later this year, it may be down to a new group of MPs to determine whether Britain would leave without a deal, with a deal including the backstop, or whether to halt the process entirely while the public has a final say on the UK’s EU membership.

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