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UK Parliament could be poised to extend EU membership to block no deal Brexit

MPs vote to allow a motion to be tabled that would require the UK to seek a Brexit delay if no deal has been agreed by next EU Summit

The United Kingdom may be on course to remain an EU member state until early 2020, following a dramatic vote in the House of Commons on Tuesday (September 3) evening.

Members of Parliament voted by a majority of 27 to allow a motion to be tabled on Wednesday which, if passed, would require the UK prime minister to seek a Brexit delay of three months if no deal has been agreed with the EU by the time of the next EU Summit, due to be held on October 17-18.

The legislation would thus amend the current legal situation in the UK, which is that Britain must automatically leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.

The vote in favour of the motion, which was opposed by prime minister Boris Johnson, was 328 to 301, with 21 Conservative MPs defying Johnson to vote with the opposition. Johnson has responded by saying he will call a general election in October if the House of Commons votes on Wednesday to block a no deal Brexit, as now seems likely.

The vote opens the door to the prospect of several days of frantic Parliamentary activity, prompted primarily by the prime minister’s announcement last week that he was ‘proroguing’ (suspending) Parliament for a five-week period from next Tuesday (September 10) until the middle of October.

Anti-Brexit MPs took this as a signal that Johnson was seeking to close down debate in the run-up to the October 31 Brexit deadline, and took steps to table a motion which would make a no-deal Brexit on October 31 illegal. This is the motion that will be debated and voted on Wednesday.

However, in order to become law, the bill would also have to be approved by the House of Lords, and there are doubts as to whether there would be time to do this before the planned prorogation of Parliament next week.

An October election?

Prime minister Johnson has made clear that he is not prepared to ask the EU for a further extension of the ‘Article 50’ Brexit negotiating period, and has signalled that he will seek an election if the motion is carried in the House of Commons. Tuesday October 15 is widely reported as the intended date for such an election.

However, under current UK law, a prime minister can only dissolve parliament and trigger an election with the assent of two-thirds of MPs, and Opposition MPs have indicated that they may refuse to sanction such a move unless there is a firm guarantee that the election is completed before October 31. They fear that the UK’s EU membership may otherwise simply elapse on October 31, without a deal, while Parliament is recessed for an election campaign.

Still no guarantees

For farmers and the agri-food industry in the UK and across Europe, the receding threat of a no-deal Brexit, which industry leaders have publicly and vigorously opposed, will be a relief.

However, there is still no guarantee that such an event will be avoided, particularly if Johnson were to be re-elected in mid-October with a fresh Parliamentary majority which would in all probability see him overturn the anti-no deal bill being pursued this week.

Moreover, any extension of the UK’s Article 50 negotiating period has to be approved unanimously by all 27 EU member states, and it is unclear whether France, and some other like-minded member states, would agree to what would be a third Brexit extension in the space of six months.

European governments will need to balance their desire to avoid a no deal Brexit – and in particular, to avoid being held to blame for a no deal Brexit – against their reluctance to extend the uncertainty of the Brexit saga any further.

An all-Ireland SPS zone?

Prime minister Johnson insisted on Tuesday that he was making progress in negotiations with the EU to conclude a deal which would allow for an orderly UK exit on October 31, although these claims were greeted with cynicism in Brussels.

However, the UK government has this week floated the idea of a single sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) zone on the island or Ireland, as a way of facilitating cross-border trade in agri-food products post-Brexit, and hence contributing to the resolution of the Irish border question, which has emerged as the most intractable in the Brexit discussions.

Under the proposal, farmers and food producers in Northern Ireland would effectively align on EU standards, so that SPS checks on cross-border agri-food consignments would not be required.

However, this may prove an unpopular suggestion with nationalists in Northern Ireland, who fear that this could impinge on the unity of the UK agri-food market.

It would also not remove the need for tariffs to be collected on exports from Northern Ireland to the Irish Republic, unless it was accompanied by a concomitant free trade agreement.

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