Delaying Brexit Beyond March Is Easier Than You Might Think

(Bloomberg) -- Prime Minister Theresa May is struggling to save her Brexit deal and the danger of the U.K. crashing out of the European Union is on the rise. How hard would it be to delay Britain’s departure date?

From the U.K. side, it would require little more than a short debate and the approval of Parliament, which would be fairly straightforward as the one thing there is a majority for in both houses is to stop a no-deal Brexit.

Here’s how it would work:

  • Britain’s departure is enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act passed earlier this year. It determines "Exit day" as March 29, 2019 at 11 p.m. That’s midnight in Brussels and two years to the day after Britain signaled in a formal letter its intention to pull out of the bloc.
  • The same act states that a minister may "by regulations" amend that date. That would likely fall to Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay. He or another government minister would draft the regulations and lay them before Parliament.
  • Then the regulations will be examined by an ad-hoc committee of lawmakers that’s representative of the House of Commons. Typically there would be nine Conservatives, seven Labour lawmakers and another from a third party.
  • The panel would examine them in a debate that would last no longer than 90 minutes at the end of which a vote may be held. The outcome of that vote is not binding so either way the government would then schedule votes in both houses, which must both approve it.
  • This can all be completed in two days, if needed.

But what about the EU?

  • The European Union’s 27 other members would have to reach a unanimous decision to also extend talks on Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. May started a two-year clock on the departure by invoking that article on March 29, 2017.
  • As EU countries are also concerned about the repercussions of a no-deal Brexit, it’s unlikely they’d refuse. But there would have to be a compelling reason, such as a second a referendum or a new government. It would not be to re-open negotiations.

For now, the question is academic because May has resolutely stuck to the line that Britain will leave the bloc in March. But it may be needed as an option as the deadline for a resolution approaches.

If May can’t get a deal through Parliament, she has to spell out next steps by Jan. 21.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.