Brexit Q&A: What have they done this time?

By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith
Irish Examiner Political Correspondent

What have they done this time?

If you're still nursing a sore head from the weekend festivities, you might want to sit down for this.

After House of Commons speaker John Bercow warned British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday a four-century-old law prevented her from re-tabling her Brexit deal for a third time unless it was "substantially" changed, the already Rubik cube-esque row became even more complicated.

During a divisive Tuesday morning British cabinet meeting, just 10 days out from the March 29 Brexit deadline, Ms May outlined two remaining options to avoid no deal.

The British Prime Minister said she could ask the EU for a two year extension, with a three-month delay "escape clause" if MPs somehow back her deal next week.

Alternatively, she said she could also ask for a simple three-month extension.

The prime minister said she would write to European Council president Donald Tusk before Thursday and Friday's EU summit to formally request the options.

However, the fact this amounts to asking the EU to decide on any potential extension while still being in the dark on the reasons for giving one has complicated matters even further.

Why is Ms May's letter important? Hasn't she said this before?

It may sound like a side-point, but this is the first time Britain will have formally asked the EU for any kind of delay, turning it from a Brexit unicorn into a living, breathing horse.

After the cluster of House of Commons votes last week, Ms May did say Brexit is likely to be delayed by 20 months, with the only alternative being a delay up to June 30 on the condition MPs back her deal.

However, until now she has not formally requested the EU to back such a move.

Does this automatically mean Brexit has been delayed?

No, or at least not yet.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and Tánaiste Simon Coveney, made it clear on Tuesday a long-term delay will only be allowed if Britain can explain what it will do with the extra time - with Mr Barnier giving an election or a second referendum as pointed examples.

Similarly, they said a short-term three-month delay could only happen if the existing deal is passed by MPs.

When Ms May's letter arrives, it will be discussed by EU leaders, before they - not Ms May - decide whether any delay will be allowed.

So what happens next? What are the EU going to do?

Expect the EU summit to be focussed on making it abundantly clear Britain will only be allowed to delay if they can explain how it will be used.

Mr Barnier, Mr Coveney and others have politely made this point, while the European parliament's outspoken Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt has more bluntly warned the EU cannot "blindly" sign up to a delay.

After the standard sabre-rattling, the odds suggest Ms May will be given her extension if an adequate explanation is provided.

Sources say the EU may also give her a "written procedure" that would allow a delay to be quickly signed off on next week if she finally drags her battered Brexit deal through Westminster next week.

And Britain? What will Ms May, Brexiteers and MPs do?

After she writes to Brussels, Ms May will likely tell MPs that despite Mr Bercow's warning of a veto to any third Brexit deal vote, she will table it again next week to prevent a cliff-edge Friday, March 29 Brexit nightmare.

However, this latest gamble will hinge entirely on whether the EU says it will allow any extension if the deal is passed.

Brexiteers have already warned they may pull the plug on the prime minister completely if a "bad" deal is imposed, and are now pushing for a nine-month delay truce.

As for MPs, they get to either vote on the same deal for a third time, or explain to their constituents what went wrong. Far from easy options.

Okay, all joking aside, when is this going to end?

Oh that's an easy one - March 29, of course, because until an extension is agreed that is the legally imposed deadline.

Or in three months, if MPs finally back May's deal. Although it could be nine months, if Brexiteers get their way. And the EU does seem rather fixated on that two years target.

Sure, look, it's only exactly 1,000 days since the June 2016 Brexit referendum, you can't rush these things...

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