Now that the EU has granted UK prime minister Theresa May a six-month Brexit delay, the bloc’s leaders have expressed their hope that the UK can use the time to make up its mind, and allow them to get on with other important business.
That may be too much to ask.
The postponement of Britain’s scheduled departure day from April 12 to October 31 is shorter than many countries wanted. There are important milestones that will inevitably bring Brexit back on the agenda — and possibly determine the fate both of Mrs May and the UK’s bid to leave the EU.
May 2: UK local elections
With the Conservative party fearing a hiding from the electorate for its failure to deliver Brexit, poor results in these polls will fuel Brexiters’ resolve to topple the prime minister.
May 9: EU summit, Sibiu, Romania
The plan for this summit, conceived by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, was for the EU’s remaining 27 leaders to set out a positive future agenda in the wake of the UK’s departure. But the meeting will now take place before Brexit occurs — and EU officials are pondering what to do if Mrs May decides to attend.
May 22 or before: One more push for May’s deal
Mrs May asked the EU for more time because MPs’ voted down her exit deal three times. Getting the House of Commons’ approval for the draft treaty is still a big challenge — unless talks between the governing Conservatives and the opposition Labour party produce a breakthrough.
But the prime minister still hopes the deal can be approved and ratified before May 23, so Britain can avoid holding elections to the European Parliament that day. This is widely seen as a long shot.
May 23: European elections
Mrs May faces the indignity of having to lead her party in the European Parliament elections almost three years after the UK voted to leave the EU.
This was something she swore never to do, but has had to accept as a side effect of avoiding a no-deal exit. The EU has ruled that if Britain has not ratified the withdrawal treaty by May 22, it must hold the elections. Early opinion polls show the Conservatives trailing Labour in the race.
In June 2017, Mrs May said she would only serve for as long as her party wanted her to stay. May 23 could be the moment it becomes clear she is unable to carry on.
June 1: Possible exit
If the UK does not hold European Parliament elections in May, it will leave the EU on this date, with or without a deal.
Under the terms of the EU’s decision this week, which has the force of law, if both the UK and the bloc ratify the treaty at any point before the scheduled exit date of October 31, “the withdrawal will take place on the first day of the following month”.
So if the UK prime minister manages to win Commons backing in May, Britain would leave with a deal on June 1, beginning a transition period under which much of the status quo will remain the same
If MPs still do not back Mrs May’s deal, but no elections to the European Parliament have taken place, June 1 will mark a no-deal exit.
But, at present, this scenario also appears unlikely. Despite Mrs May’s desire to cancel the European elections, Britain has begun preparations to hold the poll.
June 20 to 21: EU summit, Brussels
Leaders have pledged to take stock of Brexit progress at their June meeting, but are already playing down the importance of the review.
The stocktaking exercise was largely agreed as a sop to France’s president Emmanuel Macron, who argued for a short Brexit delay to force Britain to a moment of decision. But EU chiefs have made clear that the June review is not another “cliff-edge” moment in which the UK could crash out of the bloc.
“June is not for decisions about extension, and my intention is even not to discuss, but only to inform the member states about the current situation,” said Donald Tusk, president of the EU Council, on Wednesday night.
An EU diplomat put it more bluntly: “Leaders will ask ‘Are they still here? Yes. On to October’.”
In the meantime, the bloc’s leaders will have a charged agenda, as they meet to decide the presidencies of the European Commission and the European Council of member states.
At this week’s summit they secured guarantees from Mrs May of “sincere co-operation” — a pledge not to disrupt such crucial EU business.
September 29 to October 2: Conservative party conference, Manchester
Few believe Mrs May will be able to hold on in Downing Street until the autumn. If she does, there will be enormous pressure on her to resign in time for a leadership contest to take place by the time of the party’s annual gathering.
This could be the moment a Eurosceptic is crowned leader, inaugurating a new approach to Brexit, possibly including a no-deal exit.
October 17 to 18: EU summit, Brussels
This is the last scheduled EU summit before the UK’s departure day. Like the bloc’s March gathering, it could be hijacked by Brexit.
October 31: Brexit day?
EU leaders insist that, by this point, the UK must choose whether to ratify the exit treaty, opt for a no-deal Brexit, or cancel its departure.
The deadline is not arbitrary. As Mr Macron pointed out, the end of October begins a new five-year political cycle in Brussels, as a new European Commission takes office.
Keeping a UK seat around the table at such a time would be a challenge to say the least. Nevertheless, many leaders at this week’s summit were willing to delay Brexit until the end of the year or even March — an indication that a further postponement cannot be completely ruled out.
“Our wish and our hope is the UK will be ready with the final solution at the end of October,” Mr Tusk said. “But I’m too old to exclude another scenario.”