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EU may offer a Brexit extension, but political complexities remain

With the United Kingdom’s initial extension for Brexit expiring Friday, the pressure is on for a gathering of European Union officials to come up with an alternative. Nick Schifrin talks to Amanda Sloat, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former deputy assistant secretary of state, about breaking news of a possible reprieve for the UK and which EU leaders are taking the hardest line.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Tonight, European leaders are literally burning the midnight oil, trying to avoid an economic crisis.

    It is past midnight in Brussels, and 28 heads of government are negotiating whether to give the U.K. an extension on its departure from the E.U.

    There is some breaking news now.

    And Nick Schifrin has the story.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.K. has been staring at a deadline 48 hours from now that, without an extension, they would crash out of the European Union, amid warnings that that crash would cause a recession. But just in the last few minutes, there's been word that there might be some breathing room.

    The negotiations are going on right now in Brussels, where we find Amanda Sloat, former deputy assistant secretary of state and a senior fellow at Brookings.

    Amanda Sloat, welcome to the "NewsHour."

    We are getting word that an extension has been granted — or at least the Europeans have agreed on an extension until October 31. They're talking to the prime minister, Theresa May, right now.

    What more details do we have? And why October 31?

  • Amanda Sloat:

    That's correct.

    So it's almost 1:00 a.m. here. Leaders have been meeting for nearly seven hours with Theresa May. What we are hearing now is that they are prepared to offer an extension until October 31.

    The significance of that date is, that is when the new European Commission will meet. French President Emmanuel Macron was certainly the most hard line coming into these negotiations. And our understanding from reports coming out of the room is that he was up against the vast majority of other member states in terms of insisting on a short extension, whereas many of the others were sympathetic to a long extension.

    He had two primary focuses in terms of maintaining the integrity of the working of the E.U. institutions. The first requirement, which the U.K. had been prepared to meet, was to hold European Parliament elections at the end of May if it hadn't reached an agreement until then.

    The second thing that Macron was quite focused on was wanting to ensure that the commission was able to function, and, in particular, was talk about removing the British commissioner. So given what we are understanding from these results, which, as you said, are now being presented to Prime Minister May, it seems that French President Macron won in terms of getting a shorter extension, but perhaps slightly longer than what he was initially hoping for.

    There's also an expectation that there will be a review mechanism in June to see where the U.K. is in terms of having held these U.K. elections and whether it is on track to leave by the end of October.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, let's just zoom out a little bit here for people just to understand this moment.

    We had this deadline, 48 hours from now, warnings from the IMF that there would be a two-year recession, at least, if the British crashed out. Bottom line, the British will not crash out on Friday, but they still don't know what Brexit is exactly going to be. There is still no agreement from the British side yet, is there?

  • Amanda Sloat:


    An extension is simply a delay. It is not a deal. And so the challenge now is still, as it has always been, for the U.K. to reach an agreement. Theresa May had announced last week that she was going to begin holding cross-party talks with Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn. Those talks have been continuing. They do not appear to be going particularly well in terms of moving towards an agreement.

    If they do reach agreement, the question is going to be whether it is going to hold and be ratified by both of their parties. If that doesn't succeed, Theresa May says that she will have Parliament hold a series of indicative votes in terms of considering various options on the way (AUDIO GAP) two series of indicative votes and still is no closer to reaching majority agreement.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amanda Sloat, we just — we lost you just for a second there.

    So, just to zoom in, Theresa May is talking to Jeremy Corbyn, the Labor leader, about what kind of Brexit that they could agree on. They're trying to make an agreement on two main things, one, a so-called softer Brexit, some kind of staying inside the European Customs Union, and coming up with possibly a second referendum.

    Is there any sign of compromise on that fundamental fact that the Brits still have to agree on what form of Brexit will be?

  • Amanda Sloat:

    I think it's going to remain quite complicated.

    The two leaders seem to be having negotiations in good faith, but the problem is that there are splits within both of their parties. Jeremy Corbyn has long been advocating a softer Brexit, in terms of continued participation in the Customs Union. This is going to be anathema to the hard Brexiteers in Theresa May's party, as well as some of her mainstream members.

    The secondary issue is going to be the second referendum. Jeremy Corbyn himself is not super enthused about this. There are splits in the party between those who won't support him if he does and those who won't support him if he doesn't.

    And so the question is going to be, what sort of compromise agreement can they reach? Will it just be a Customs Union? Will it be a Customs Union with the second referendum? And even they can reach agreement between the two leaders, will whatever they produce have enough votes to actually gain majority support in Parliament?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Amanda Sloat, we will have to leave it there, following every inch of the action, both in Brussels and London, former State Department official, Brookings senior fellow.

    Thank you very much.

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