Will Brexit really happen on March 29? Unlikely, analysts say, despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s insistence that Britain will split from the EU by the looming deadline.
With her divorce deal with Brussels currently stuck in the UK parliament and fears of economic chaos in case of a messy split rippling across Europe, a delay of at least a few weeks would seem to benefit everyone.
‘At this stage right now, it seems almost inevitable that Brexit is going to have to be delayed one way or another, at least for a few weeks,’ Constantine Fraser, an analyst at the TS Lombard economic and political research group, told AFP.
‘That’s the very minimum.’
May, who effectively set the date when she started a two-year negotiation countdown in 2017 under Article 50 of the EU treaties, will not countenance the idea of not getting the job done on time.
But a growing chorus of voices in her own cabinet, including those of finance chief Philip Hammond and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt, have broached the subject in public.
The Daily Telegraph reports that ministers have privately discussed asking Brussels to push back the deadline by eight weeks, until May 24.
So why is May refusing to budge?
‘She’s running down the clock,’ Fraser said.
‘She wants to use the threat of a (chaotic) no-deal Brexit at the end of March… to convince opposition MPs to vote for her deal out of fear of a no deal.’
‘Stubborn and focused’
It is a risky strategy that has investors on edge and companies and governments rolling out costly no-deal preparation designed to keep stores stocked and airports running on March 30.
The EU also has reasons to oppose a delay.
The European Parliament has elections at the end of May, meaning that EU leaders would want to see Britain’s status settled by the time its new session convenes in July.
But politically, May’s approach has a certain logic.
In theory, at least, some MPs will fear getting blamed for the mayhem that many believe will ensue should Britain leave without a plan.
And others who oppose her deal because it keeps London too closely bound to Brussels will worry that Brexit gets even further watered down – if not cancelled outright.
Nick Wright, an expert on EU politics with University College London (UCL), attributes the entire approach to May’s political ‘stubbornness’.
May wants to leave ‘parliamentarians and members of her own government no choice but to accept her’ deal,  Wright told AFP.
So, will it work?
‘I do wonder sometimes,’ Wright said. ‘She’s so stubborn and focused on what she’s doing that she actually refuses to accept that it may not be feasible.’
Prolonging the agony
Injecting raw emotion into the seemingly endless process, EU leader Donald Tusk warned Wednesday there was a ‘special place in Hell’ for those who backed Brexit ‘without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely’.
But neither TS Lombard’s Fraser nor UCL’s Wright doubts that the EU 27 will sign May’s request to push back the deadline – once it eventually comes.
‘It’s not in their interest to have a disorderly no-deal Brexit any more than it is anybody else’s,’ Wright said.
Hunt, the foreign secretary, said last week that Britain might need to plead for time if MPs end up rallying around May’s plan at the very last moment.
After that, parliament would still need to pass additional legislation needed to actually implement Brexit.
‘If we ended up approving a deal in the days before March 29, then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation,’ Hunt said.
But the idea of a much longer extension – one needed simply to get some sort of revised deal through parliament after March 29 – might only ‘prolong the agony’ without achieving much, Fraser said.
‘If the only thing that tends to force (parliament) to make up its mind is time pressure, a longer extension isn’t necessarily going to help that much,’ he cautioned.