Brexit deadline pushed out to October 31

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European Union leaders have agreed to a request by British Prime Minister Theresa May for an extension to the Brexit date. They have agreed to a ‘flexible’ extension to October 31, subject to certain conditions, including one which calls for elections to the European Parliament to take place in Britain and the north of Ireland next month.

Mrs May’s hand had been forced by an act of parliament by backbench MPs, rushed through Westminster and which became law on Monday, requiring May to seek an extension to prevent a sudden ‘no deal’ exit from the EU.

It has been a humiliating week for the British PM, who is now likely to come under renewed pressure to quit as Tory leader and call a British general election.

The terms of the extension will allow Britain to leave the EU as soon as Westminster passes a deal. Other conditions of the deal include guarantees Britain will not try to undermine the EU during the extra time it has been offered, and a review of the extension at the next EU summit in June to ensure the conditions are being met.

The outcome averts a potential disaster at 11pm on Friday, which would have seen Britain suddenly drop out of the EU and require the sudden imposition of customs and security controls for the border through Ireland.

While Britain will not suddenly leave the EU on Friday evening, a no-deal Brexit still cannot be ruled out in the coming months. Under tonight’s agreement, a failure by London to hold elections to the European Parliament without a deal in place would force a crash-out Brexit on June 1.

Britain could still avoid the humiliating process of holding European elections if Westminster agrees a Brexit deal before the elections take place on May 23. Despite the uncertainty, plans to hold European elections in Britain and the Six Counties are being set in train. This will have the knock-on effect of reducing the number of MEPs to be elected in the 26 Counties on the same day, which had been set to increase by two.

The DUP, which has supported May’s minority government, are unhappy at the failure to deliver Brexit by Friday’s expected departure date -- the second, two weeks after the original Brexit day of March 29.

DUP leader Arlene Foster accused May of trying to force her party into backing the already negotiated Withdrawal Agreement. The party continues to oppose the deal’s ‘backstop’ clause for the Irish border, which is intended to prevent a remilitarisation of the border area, but could see regulations ultimately differ on either side of the Irish Sea.

“Despite the prime minister being warned about the opposition to her withdrawal agreement, she has limped along and tried to force people into a cul-de-sac where they have no option but to support her deal,” she said.

“That is a weak approach and demeans the strength of this great nation. It is also foolish as it traps the UK and burdens future generations with a bad deal.”

In a statement early this morning, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the British government “must use this extension to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and the minimal protections of the Backstop”.

Ms McDonald also welcomed the prospect of European elections in the North which she said would “give the people a chance to have their say”.

“Never again can a British government have the power to impose a border across Ireland and act against the wishes of the people,” she said. “Now is the time to look to the future and to begin to plan for a unity referendum in line with the Good Friday Agreement.”

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