The decision by the European Union to grant the UK a six-month extension to Brexit prevented it from leaving the bloc without a deal last Friday, and hopefully will give Britain enough time to come up with a sensible and feasible EU departure plan.

The new deadline, October 31, is not the first time the EU has shown flexibility in trying to come up with an orderly transition plan for Brexit: the UK was first meant to leave on March 29, two years after it started the exit process by invoking Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. After the withdrawal agreement reached between the EU and UK was rejected three times by the House of Commons, EU leaders agreed to extend the Brexit date to April 12 if Prime Minister Theresa May still failed to get her deal approved by MPs, or May 22 if she did.

With no sign of a parliamentary majority moving towards the approval of the EU-UK withdrawal deal and with many other proposed deals put forward by MPs rejected, both sides realised that a no-deal scenario would be absolutely disastrous and agreed, rationally, to a Brexit extension.

In a nutshell, EU leaders last week agreed on a Brexit delay “only as long as necessary” and “no longer than October 31” to allow for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement. The UK will have to participate in the European Parliament elections and withdrawal agreement negotiations cannot be reopened. This means the ‘backstop’, the insurance policy designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, is not open for discussion.

What now is the way forward in this Brexit saga? European Council president Donald Tusk perhaps summed up the feelings of EU leaders when he said his “message to British friends” was “please do not waste this time”. What Tusk is telling Britain is that the bloc has done its bit and has shown flexibility in order to prevent a no-deal Brexit and to give the UK more time to find common ground among its MPs. Now it’s up to Britain to use these six months constructively to re-evaluate its Brexit strategy and ensure it will have a good working relationship with the EU after it leaves. 

There is little doubt that Brexit, of whatever form or shape, is a lose-lose situation. If it does have to take place it should be in an orderly manner and within a framework that keeps the two sides as closely integrated as possible, economically and politically. The withdrawal agreement was a step in this direction but has been rejected by right-wing Conservative MPs who want a harder Brexit or even a ‘no deal’, and by the bulk of Opposition parties because they want a softer Brexit.

Prime Minister May has squandered time trying to appease her right-wing backbench MPs instead of seeking common ground with the Opposition. This will have to change if there is any chance of a withdrawal deal being backed by a parliamentary majority. The British Prime Minister’s recent talks with the Opposition are a step in the right direction, although she has so far shown no signs of flexibility in moving towards a softer Brexit which the other parties, and indeed some of her own pro-EU backbenchers, would be more comfortable with.

It is important that the political gridlock that has engulfed the country is overcome. For this to happen, Mrs May will have to reach out towards the Opposition parties even if this means alienating her right-wing backbenchers. She clearly needs to put her country before her party if the autumn deadline is to be met.

Ideally, any final deal agreed to by British MPs should be voted on in a second referendum. The electorate now have a much clearer picture of the options before them. This could well be the price the Opposition parties will demand in return for their support of a deal.

There is the possibility Mrs May will be forced to resign if she makes no progress in putting together a majority for a deal, leading either to a general election or her replacement by a right-wing Conservative Brexiteer. Both are recipes for more confusion and instability on Brexit. The EU must be prepared for all eventualities. 

As Mr Tusk said, the course of action will be entirely in the UK’s hands. “They can still ratify the withdrawal agreement, in which case the extension can be terminated” and the UK could also rethink its strategy or choose to “cancel Brexit altogether”.

Whatever the outcome, Britain and the EU must remain close trading partners and allies, with strong economic, political and security links. The two sides simply cannot afford otherwise.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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