Britain narrowly avoided a no-deal Brexit and businesses are curbing their enthusiasm.
The European Council gave the UK until October 31 to agree on a deal for its departure from the EU trading bloc, bringing Brexit to a temporary halt. The UK was originally due to crash out without a deal on March 29, two years after it had triggered Article 50, a clause in the Lisbon Treaty that lays down the legal process a member country must follow to leave the EU.
This deadline was moved to April 12 after Prime Minister Theresa May failed to secure enough votes for her withdrawal agreement. With the British Parliament still unable to agree on what to do next, the EU again offered a “flexible” deadline of October 31, meaning the UK could leave earlier if May’s deal gets through.
Announcing the extension on April 10, European Council President Donald Tusk said the next course of action is “entirely in the UK’s hand,” whether it ratifies May’s withdrawal agreement, rethinks it strategy, or revokes Article 50 and stops Brexit. In a message to the UK, he added, “This extension is as flexible as I expected, and a little bit shorter than I expected, but it’s still enough to find the best possible solution. Please do not waste this time.”
UK businesses reacted with a mix of relief and exasperation. The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said: “The prospect of a messy and disorderly exit on Friday has again been averted. Businesses will be relieved, but their frustration with this seemingly endless political process is palpable.” The BCC added that it was “urgent” that Parliament reaches consensus, and that it would be a “disaster for business confidence and investment if a similar late-night drama” unfolds in October.
There are ongoing talks between the Conservative Party–led government and the opposition Labour Party to try to break the deadlock. Parliament could still agree to May’s already thrice-rejected deal, but it is unlikely. If that doesn’t happen, the UK must take part in European elections on May 23. After that, the possibilities could range from a general election, another referendum, a cancelled Brexit, or even a possible no-deal exit in October, meaning businesses could be in for an especially scary Halloween.