Senior officials in the British government said Sunday the country will leave the European Union by the end of the month, despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson sending EU leaders a letter requesting another extension to the Brexit deadline.
“We are going to leave by October 31,” the official in charge of planning for a “no-deal” Brexit, Michael Gove said Sunday. “We have the means and the ability to do so.”
In a second, personal letter Johnson sent to EU leaders Saturday evening, he wrote, “I remain confident that we will complete the [Brexit] process by 31 October.”
Despite this confidence, Johnson has asked for a three month extension, requesting EU leaders allow the UK to leave the bloc on January 31 rather than October 31. He made that request in a formal, unsigned letter he was required by law to send to the EU following the passage of a measure mandating it be sent in Parliament Saturday.
Johnson followed that message with a second, signed letter on Downing Street stationary that outlined his own stance on Parliament’s request for an extension. It was in that letter he said he plans to move ahead with seeking approval of the Brexit deal he reached with EU leaders last week.
“I have made clear since becoming Prime Minister … that a further extension would damage the interests of the UK and our EU partners, and the relationship between us,” Johnson wrote in the second letter. “We must bring this process to a conclusion so that we can move to the next phase and build our new relationship on the foundations of our long history as neighbours and friends in this continent our people’s share.”
This second letter is likely to spark court challenges arguing Johnson sent it intending to block Parliament’s extension request, the Associated Press reported. The prime minister has already lost a court battle over Brexit, when he was taken before judges over his decision to suspend Parliament.
Initial reactions to both letters in the EU suggest the extension request could be granted. EU President and Finnish Prime Minister Antti Rinne said Sunday, “It makes sense to allow extra time.” The EU’s head Brexit negotiator also said he has seen indications member states will approve the request.
All 27 EU leaders must agree in order to grant the extension — as they discuss whether to do so, Johnson has just 11 days to convince lawmakers, including some of his own party, to sign on to the deal he’s brokered with the EU.
As it waits to hear back from the EU, the British government will spend the next several days under immense pressure to approve a plan to divorce the EU.
Should an extension not be granted and the deal fail to pass Parliament, the UK could face a no-deal Brexit in which it leaves the EU without a cooperation framework for any of the economic and political institutions it once belonged to. Experts estimate this scenario would lead to a 9.3 percent shrinking of the UK economy in the next 15 years. The government has a plan for this situation, but it isn’t clear how much it would help in the short term.
To leave with the deal Johnson’s made with the EU, Parliament would have to approve the agreement and pass legislation enacting it by the end of October. The UK’s representative to the EU sent his own letter to the European leaders saying Johnson will put the deal up for a vote this week.
Johnson and Parliament are not on great terms. He suspended them for five weeks earlier this year in order to stop his opponents from blocking his plan for Brexit, but courts deemed the move illegal a few weeks into the suspension. Members of Parliament opposed to a no-deal Brexit were incensed, causing some members of his own party to abandon him, leaving him without a majority voting bloc.
If he can woo enough lawmakers back to his side, it’s possible they’ll approve his deal and the UK with leave with a plan before the end of the month. If he can’t, it will be up to the EU to decide whether Britain crashes out.
If the EU approves the extension (and if Parliament rejects his plan and if Johnson chooses not to stand by his promise to leave without a deal) the prime minister could pursue a new national election — a method he’s tried twice, failing both times because he needs two-thirds of Parliament to agree. Johnson hopes the election would yield a new Parliament with more members who support his Brexit plan. Some members of Parliament are on board with the idea of another election, but have insisted he ask for a deadline extension from the EU first.
Another option, demanded by hundreds of thousands of people in London Saturday, is to ask the British public to vote again on whether the UK should leave the EU.
Advocates for another referendum argue that voters didn’t fully understand the consequences of leaving the EU when they voted to do so in 2016. For example, proponents of leaving said it would strengthen the country’s economic prowess, but those in favor of remaining argue there is growing evidence to suggest the UK will be a lesser economic force outside of the EU.
Now that there have been years of public discourse around Brexit, those in favor of a second referendum argue the temperature of the kingdom must be taken a second time to ensure the majority of voters still want to strike off on their own.
However, polls are mixed on whether that would make a difference: Some show a majority prefer remaining in the EU, and some show the opposite. Plus, experts estimate it would probably take at least around six months to bring the question back to to the public. Given the tight timeframe, it would be a challenging endeavor.
That would make a general election — which in 2017 was pulled off just seven weeks after it was announced — the more plausible option to give the British public another chance to weigh in on Brexit by re-selecting their leaders.
That, of course, hinges on whether the EU says yes to three more months and if Johnson decides to back off of his pledge to leave regardless. EU leaders aren’t expected to answer Parliament’s plea in the next few days, but the clock is ticking.
In short, there remains a lot of uncertainty, but one thing is for sure: after this week’s vote on Johnson’s Brexit agreement, the UK’s options will become a little more clear.