Johnson had vowed he would get Britain out of the bloc by then — with or without a withdrawal deal to manage the transition and prevent economic turmoil. But Parliament had a different idea, insisting on legal guarantees that Britain agree to a departure deal before exiting the E.U. It was the first of a string of legislative defeats for Johnson, who lacks a governing majority and has had to go more slowly on Brexit than he wanted.
Ambassadors from the 27 remaining E.U. members agreed Monday to postpone the departure date until the end of January, although Britain could still leave earlier if Parliament ratifies the separation deal ahead of time. In Europe’s jargon-loving precincts, that means Britain received a “flextension.”
“The EU27 has agreed that it will accept the UK’s request for a #Brexit flextension until 31 January 2020,” European Council President Donald Tusk said Monday on Twitter. Ambassadors agreed to the deal without calling in national leaders for an in-person meeting, a sign that the decision was not especially controversial.
Leaders are tired of debating Brexit at a moment when many European economies are flagging, extreme parties are still nipping at their heels and many citizens just want to move on. But they also fear igniting an economic blaze by kicking Britain out of the bloc before it is ready.
Now Johnson plans to push for a general election in early December. Parliament is scheduled to debate election plans later Monday.
Johnson will ask lawmakers — for the third time — to back his calls for a general election. Under 2011 legislation, Johnson needs the support of two-thirds of the House of Commons to call an early election, meaning he needs opposition support. Johnson wants a Dec. 12 election. Without the Labour Party backing him, though, he is expected to fail in this attempt.
But there may be another route. Johnson’s government could back a plan by the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party, which have suggested a Dec. 9 election. They could attempt to pass a one-line piece of legislation, which would need only a simple majority. The legislation, which would call for an election on that date and could be amended, could be passed as early as Tuesday. If greenlighted, it would mark the first time that Britain has held a general election in December since the 1920s.
In a series of tweets, Nicola Sturgeon, the first minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party, explained why she was supporting an early general election. Doing nothing, she said, would allow Johnson to get his “bad deal through.” Or it could allow Johnson to run out the clock until the end of January, when a divorce from the E.U. without a deal, known as a no-deal Brexit, “becomes a real risk all over again,” she said.
“For all his bluster, Johnson would much prefer to fight an election with Brexit already ‘delivered,’” Sturgeon tweeted. “An election now would instead force him to explain his failure to keep his 31 October ‘do or die’ promise and also defend his bad deal.”
Recent polling puts Johnson’s Conservative Party 10 points ahead of Labour.
But as Theresa May, Johnson’s successor, knows only too well, polls can shift dramatically over the course of an election campaign. In the last general election, in 2017, May went in expecting to get a clear majority and mandate, but ended up losing her parliamentary majority instead.
Some European leaders view Britain’s continued membership in the bloc with significant wariness. Monday’s delay was granted on the condition that British representatives in the E.U. agree not to obstruct the body’s decision-making while they linger inside the club, as Johnson has at times threatened to do.
The E.U. leaders also want Johnson to name a European commissioner, a kind of senior E.U. bureaucrat, because each member country is required to do so under E.U. treaties.
Naming someone would be another politically symbolic defeat for Johnson. Not naming a commissioner would violate the E.U. treaties, potentially opening the bloc’s decisions to legal challenges and upsetting the Europeans.
Monday’s postponement still needs a final sign-off, because Johnson has to agree to it. Assuming everything goes as expected, it will be legally binding on Tuesday or Wednesday, just ahead of the current departure date on Thursday.
Adam reported from London. Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.