European leaders gather in Brussels at a defining moment in the Brexit process. Little more than a week before the U.K. is scheduled to leave there is still no agreement on an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period.
The alternatives? A revocation of the U.K.’s notice to leave which Prime Minister Theresa May has already deemed unthinkable, and a no-deal exit that most observers predict would mean a serious economic shock.
Here are the key moments to watch out for during the European Council summit and beyond:
Wednesday – Two letters
The prime minister wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk Wednesday setting out her request for an extension — until June 30. We’ll also see Tusk’s own invitation letter to EU leaders arriving for Thursday’s summit, where he will set the framework for their discussion of May’s request.
Under the terms agreed by the House of Commons last week, May was going to ask for a short extension up to June 30, if MPs had backed her Brexit deal by today. They haven’t. The motion agreed by the House of Commons was not 100 percent clear on what May will do in the current circumstances. It only notes that the EU would want a reason from the U.K. for any extension that would involve the U.K. taking part in European Parliament election in May.
Meanwhile, in the House of Commons there is likely to be a call for an emergency debate on May’s Brexit extension intentions, as well as two Brexit-related urgent questions from backbenchers.
Thursday – EU leaders meet
Attention will shift to the EU leaders and their response. The first item on the European Council summit agenda is a meeting of the EU27 (without Theresa May) to discuss the state of play. This is due to start at 3.30 p.m. Brussels time, but watch out for what EU27 leaders say on their way into the summit.
“An extension for what? Which ones are the objectives?” — EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier
Afterwards, Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are due to give a press conference at 7 p.m. Brussels time. The summit dinner, which May is expected to attend, begins at 7.30 p.m. The topic for discussion during dinner is China, but there’s still a chance that Brexit could feature.
What EU leaders will decide depends on what May requests. But EU officials said their paramount goals are to avoid a potentially catastrophic no-deal departure by the U.K. and to safeguard the functioning of EU institutions by trying to limit the potential complications an extension would pose for the European Parliament election in May.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said EU leaders will demand a purpose. “An extension for what? Which ones are the objectives?” he asked Tuesday.
However, despite all the action, we won’t necessarily get a firm answer from the EU to the U.K.’s extension request. Juncker told Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio station on Wednesday morning that the European Council likely won’t come to a decision this week and that “we’ll probably have to meet again next week.”
He indicated that May would require “approval of the treaty that’s been negotiated” from Cabinet and parliament in order for leaders to agree an extension. If that’s the case the chances of no deal just shot up, because at the moment there is still no indication May has won round enough MPs to vote for her deal.
Friday — Summit day two
EU leaders are scheduled to turn to other non-Brexit business for the second day of the summit on Friday.
May will still be present, and it’s possible she will hold a press conference after the summit ends in the afternoon (if she hasn’t already spoken to the media on Thursday — no decisions have yet been made).
Another Tusk/Juncker press conference is scheduled for 12:45 p.m. Brussels time.
The weekend — Last chance to persuade MPs?
Depending on what happens at the summit, May might be spending the weekend frantically trying to win over MPs to back her deal in a possible final attempt at ratification next week.
Monday — Amendable Brexit motion
On Monday, the House of Commons could seize control from May’s hands.
A government motion on Brexit, required under the terms of the Withdrawal Act following May’s latest defeat on her Brexit deal, must be debated by this day in the House of Commons. It’s an amendable motion and MPs will be able to vote on any amendments brought forward — much like previous rounds of voting we saw in January and February.
The votes themselves would be non-binding on the government but there is a mechanism by which MPs could take control of the Commons timetable, paving the way for binding legislation. This is what Labour MP Yvette Cooper, Tory MP Nick Boles and likeminded MPs have already attempted (so far without winning a majority) but they may try a similar gambit.
Later next week — Emergency summit?
Such is the uncertainty of the current moment, it’s hard to predict far beyond the next few days.
But Juncker’s comment suggests that Brussels is gearing up for a potential emergency EU summit. That may only happen if May has somehow got her deal through the House of Commons.
To do that she needs to persuade Speaker John Bercow that the deal on the table is substantially different to the ones already put to MPs. Bercow said on Monday that re-running the vote on the same deal again and again was a breach of House of Commons convention that he would not allow.
If an extension is agreed, then there will need to be a debate and vote in both the Commons and the Lords on the legal change to the March 29 Brexit date in U.K. law. Ministers can change it using a so-called statutory instrument but peers and MPs need to agree. Brexiteers in the Commons will do everything they can to retain the original date.