Internal documents drawn up by the European Council show that the bloc is planning what to do “in the event that the United Kingdom is still a member state of the union” after March.
Separately, European Commission officials have privately discussed the practicalities of extending Brexit talks, according to sources cited by the German newspaper Handelsblatt.
Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said this week that there were “a number of different scenarios that could arise if we’re in a ‘no deal’ situation” by March – acknowledging that it “is possible to extend Article 50 to allow more time for negotiations to take place”.
Article 50 talks are supposed to last exactly two years but can potentially be extended with the explicit and unanimous permission of all EU member states. Any significant extension could mean Britain will have to hold elections for the European Parliament in May next year.
Theresa May has staked her reputation on leaving the bloc by 29 March 2019 and has repeatedly said that “no deal is better than a bad deal”. But the EU has said a withdrawal deal needs to be finalised before October this year to give it time to be ratified before the exit date.
Talks are currently floundering on the issue of the Northern Ireland border and how to avoid controls reappearing after the UK leaves. The EU hoped to solve the issue by the next European Council summit due later this month, but this now looks a long way off, in part because of rows in Ms May’s own cabinet and party.
Back in Westminster MPs including Tory rebels, are currently locked in a struggle with the government over how big of a say parliament will have in the event of a no deal situation. MPs want a meaningful vote on the final deal, but the government is trying to strike a compromise arrangement that would merely see it consulted.
A previous offer issued by Tory whips to quell the rebellion has been rejected by pro-EU conservatives, led by former attorney general Dominic Grieve.
If the two sides do fail to reach a deal and talks are not extended or if Article 50 is not revoked, Britain would crash out of the bloc without any transition period and go straight to trading on WTO terms, which could trigger a massive economic crisis to compound the on-going political crisis.
With deadlock on the withdrawal agreement, negotiators have not even got far into serious discussions on the future economic relationship, which the UK had been hoping to draw up a framework for before it leaves.
The document drawn up by the European Council showing preparations for a delayed Brexit addressed what will happen to the UK’s seats in the European Parliament, which are set to be partly distributed between other member states at the body’s next elections scheduled for the end of May.
But under EU treaties if the UK is still a member when the elections happen it will technically have to participate, an eventuality which it has not been publicly preparing for.
“In the event that the United Kingdom is still a member state of the union at the beginning of the 2019-2024 parliamentary term, the number of representatives in the European Parliament per member state taking up office shall be the one provided for in Article 3 of the European Council Decision 2013/312/EU1 until the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the union becomes legally effective,” the European Council plan says.
It continues, adding that the plan to redistribute the MEPs will come into force midway through the parliamentary term if and when Britain ultimately leaves the bloc.
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