The date Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union technically doesn’t matter—but postponing it does.
Put simply: There is none.
March 29 marks two years since British Prime Minister Theresa May made the fateful decision to trigger Article 50, the EU’s time-limited exit procedure that formally began the process of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc. The move followed immense pressure from Brexit proponents within the prime minister’s own party to enshrine an exit date into law.
Since then, March 29 has had an almost Independence Day quality to it. For many Brexiteers, it’s the looming reward after years of negotiations with Brussels on money, citizens’ rights, the Irish border, and everything in between. It’s the day, more than two and a half years since the Brexit referendum, when Britons can finally take back control.
Securing an extension won’t be easy. The idea of postponing Brexit beyond March 29 is seen as anathema to many Brexiteers who fear that a delay could lead to further government backsliding, and a number of Brexit-supporting MPs have threatened to rebel against the government, which has a flimsy majority, if it tries to pursue one. It’s also an unpopular idea for May, who has been reluctant to entertain any alternatives to her own negotiated deal. “I do not want to see Article 50 extended,” the prime minister told the House of Commons on Tuesday. “Our absolute focus should be on working to get a deal and leaving on the 29th of March.”
Even if the U.K. were to request an extension, the next question would be, For how long? This is something only the EU can answer. While a technical extension of up to a few weeks would be relatively straightforward for the bloc, a longer delay could pose issues—especially if it overlaps with the upcoming European Parliament elections. Speaking at an event in London last week, Stefaan De Rynck, the adviser to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, insisted that all EU members are required to participate in the May vote. “If you extend Article 50, you extend membership,” De Rynck said. “So you extend also all the rights and obligations of membership. There is an obligation of membership to organize European elections.”
Such is the latest conundrum of Brexit: Though the March 29 exit date itself doesn’t technically matter, any attempt to move it now does.