A short extension precludes another postponement later in the processby Christopher Grey / April 21, 2020 / Leave a comment
Coronavirus has brought the Brexit negotiations to a virtual standstill, as both sides are preoccupied with dealing with the crisis and key figures have fallen ill. There are therefore growing calls for an extension to the transition period beyond the current date of 31st December 2020. Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, any such extension would have to be agreed by the end of June. At the moment, the government is adamant that no extension will be sought or agreed to.
We can expect to hear much debate about that in the next couple of months, but as well as the question of whether to extend there is also the question of how long for. Given the uncertainties surrounding the pandemic, my own view is that longer is better. Indeed, a short extension would in some ways be worse than no extension at all, using up the one chance for flexibility without providing enough time to get the job done.
During the Article 50 negotiations that led to the Withdrawal Agreement, people may have got used to it being possible, if both sides agreed, to extend and re-extend by varying amounts as events required. Thus, although one of them is almost forgotten now, there were three extensions agreed: from 29th March 2019 to 12th April, then from 12th April to 31st October and finally from 31st October 2019 to 31st January 2020.
Crucially, there is no such flexibility in extending the transition period. Under the Withdrawal Agreement—which is a binding international treaty—there is provision for a single extension, which may be for one year or for two years.
So if the UK does come to the point of deciding an extension is necessary, and if the EU agrees to it, there will be only one opportunity to set its length. Given the unpopularity of an extension with many Brexiters, the government is likely to be tempted to make it of the shortest possible length.
Some have spoken of six months, or even a month-by-month rolling extension, although neither of these is compatible with the Withdrawal Agreement and therefore unlikely to be agreed to by the EU. So the choice probably comes back to one year or two.