EU leaders locked in discussions over possible Brexit extension
EU leaders were locked in discussions over proposals to postpone Brexit, after a proposed new date of May 22 came under challenge at a Brussels summit.
A draft communique presented to the leaders of the 27 remaining member-states suggested an extension to the withdrawal process to the eve of European Parliament elections, conditional on MPs approving Theresa May’s Brexit deal.
But a meeting to finalise the offer dragged on long after its scheduled conclusion, amid reports that the text was being torn up and rewritten.
Unconfirmed reports suggested that an alternative date of May 7 – two days before a planned summit in Romania to celebrate the “renewal” of the EU – was under consideration, with a possible extension to the end of the year if the UK takes part in European Parliament elections.
The proposed May 22 date was five weeks short of the June 30 date requested by the Prime Minister and would present her with a race against time to complete legislation needed for an orderly UK withdrawal.
Mrs May made the case for a June 30 extension in a 90-minute presentation to the EU27, before leaving them to discuss their response in her absence.
But the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani, told the leaders that MEPs do not want any extension to run beyond April 11, which is the last possible date for the UK to announce its participation in the elections.
The draft communique suggested that an extension could stretch beyond the May 23-26 European elections only if the UK takes part.
“Given that the UK does not intend to hold elections to the European Parliament, no extension is possible beyond that date,” said the draft.
The communique also suggested the EU would formally adopt two documents agreed by Mrs May with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg last week, with the intention of reassuring MPs that the controversial backstop will not be permanent.
As she arrived in Brussels for what was slated to be the UK’s final EU summit as a member of the bloc, the Prime Minister said she “sincerely hopes” Britain will be able to leave with a deal.
But several leaders warned that if MPs turn down her Withdrawal Agreement for a third time, the UK could be heading for a no-deal Brexit on March 29.
French president Emmanuel Macron said only a short “technical” extension was on offer and if MPs reject the agreement “it will guide everybody to a no-deal for sure”.
Describing the UK as being in “political crisis”, Mr Macron said: “There needs to be a profound political change if there is to be an extension which is anything other than technical.”
Luxembourg’s prime minister Xavier Bettel said: “At the moment, there are more non-options on the table than options… I sometimes have the feeling that we are in the waiting room, a bit like Waiting for Godot. But Godot never came so I hope this time they will come.”
Italian PM Giuseppe Conte said: “We think a short delay could be useful. We need to wait for a new vote in the British Parliament.”
Mrs May was coming under intense pressure after a poor reception from some of her own MPs to her Downing Street statement on Wednesday, when she blamed MPs for failing to implement the result of the 2016 EU referendum and told frustrated voters “I am on your side”.
The televised message was described as a “low blow” by former minister Sam Gyimah.
But Number 10 defended her comments, saying they had been intended as a “message to the public” to explain why she had decided to seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.
And she put the spotlight back on MPs as she arrived in Brussels, saying: “What is important is that Parliament delivers on the result of the referendum and that we deliver Brexit for the British people. I sincerely hope that we can do that with a deal.”
She added: “What matters is that we recognise that Brexit is the decision of the British people – we need to deliver on that.
“We’re nearly three years on from the original vote – it is now the time for Parliament to decide.”
Jeremy Corbyn held what he described as “very constructive discussions” in Brussels with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr, which he said had focused on the means to prevent a no-deal Brexit next Friday.
The Labour leader twice declined to rule out the option of halting Brexit by revoking the Article 50 letter informing Brussels of Britain’s intention to quit, though a party spokesman later said revocation was “not in any way necessary”.
Mrs May met European Council president Donald Tusk and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for one-on-one talks ahead of her presentation.
With fears in Brussels growing that the UK is heading for a no-deal break, Mr Tusk said he would not hesitate to call an emergency summit next week if that proved necessary.
German chancellor Angela Merkel also said she will work “until the last hour” to try and ensure that Britain does not leave the European Union without a deal.
Speaking to German MPs ahead of the summit, Mrs Merkel stressed “the most important emergency measures” are in place in her country to handle no-deal, but she still hopes to avoid a crisis.
She added: “We will, despite these measures we have taken, work until the last day – I will say until the last hour – to ensure that this emergency planning doesn’t come into effect.
“We will do everything in the remaining, admittedly few, days to achieve an orderly, joint solution.”
Mrs May formally made the request for an extension to the end of June in a letter to Mr Tusk on Wednesday.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain would be faced with three options if Mrs May’s deal is defeated again next week: revoke Article 50; leave without a deal; or, he said, a longer extension could be granted at an emergency EU summit, but with “onerous conditions”.
“The choice that we have now is one of resolving this issue or extreme unpredictability,” he warned.
Mr Hunt sought to defend the Prime Minister’s statement, saying she was under “extraordinary pressure” and feels a “sense of frustration” – and said MPs have a “special responsibility” in a hung Parliament.
“She is absolutely determined to deliver what people voted for and I think… the Brexit process has sapped our national confidence and we need to remember now what we’re capable of as a country.”
A No 10 spokeswoman acknowledged Mrs May is facing some “extraordinarily difficult challenges”, but said she is working “tirelessly” to get her deal “over the line”.