The European Union thinks that the short delay to Brexit requested by Theresa May would be “very risky” if MPs don’t approve the prime minister’s Brexit deal before the extension is granted, according to a diplomatic note seen by BuzzFeed News.
The note is of a briefing made to the ambassadors of the EU’s remaining 27 member states on Friday following the prime minister’s letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, asking to extend Article 50 — the framework that sets out the two-year process for the UK’s departure from the EU that was due to end last month — to June 30.
It is the second time May has asked to delay Brexit. The prime minister has been locked in talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn since Wednesday to find a way out of the impasse the UK finds itself in after the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU was rejected by MPs on three occasions.
In her letter to Tusk, May proposed that if MPs approve the deal in time, the UK would leave the EU before May’s European Parliament elections. However, the UK would prepare for the elections in case an agreement isn’t reached in time.
The decision on whether to extend Article 50 will ultimately be one for the 27 EU leaders when they meet in Brussels next Wednesday for a European Council summit.
When the leaders last met to consider May’s previous request to extend Article 50 to June, they rejected her, agreeing instead to delay Brexit until May 22 if MPs approved the deal. If they didn’t, the UK had until April 12 to put forward a plan or face crashing out without a deal.
EU and European government officials were adamant that if the deal didn’t go through, and the UK asked for another extension beyond the April 12 deadline, the UK would have to hold European Parliament elections in May.
Unlike her earlier letter, there is an admission in this new request from May that it is the UK’s legal obligation to hold the vote, the diplomatic note acknowledged.
A short extension, which EU officials and leaders have previously spoken out against, would probably require EU leaders to meet again in May or June, the diplomats were told.
But instead of a short delay or multiple extensions, Tusk would like EU leaders to consider offering the UK a long flexible extension of up to one year. The “flextension” — first reported by the BBC — would allow the UK to exit early once the House of Commons ratifies the withdrawal agreement.
Commenting on May’s letter earlier on Friday, an EU source told BuzzFeed News: “Tusk’s ‘flextension’ is absolutely compatible with the logic of PM May’s request. The UK can leave whenever it is ready to leave. But the EU also has to protect the interests of the EU, citizens and business by avoiding repeated/continuous cliff edges and emergency summits to extend Article 50 further.”
During Friday’s meeting, the diplomats discussed potential conditions that could be attached to such an arrangement. In addition to holding the EU elections, these would include reaffirming that the withdrawal agreement — the legally binding terms of Britain’s departure from the EU — cannot be renegotiated and that the additional time is only to amend the political declaration that outlines the future UK–EU relationship.
The EU would also want to ensure that the UK doesn’t take unilateral measures that contradict the deal, and seek commitments to not disrupt the bloc’s work on issues such as its budget negotiations.
On the latter point, one risk highlighted during the meeting was that, legally, the UK would be a member state with all rights and responsibilities, meaning that such commitments would only go so far.
A long extension would most probably also require approval from the European Parliament.
According to the diplomatic note, though many member states have doubts and are uncomfortable with the notion of a long extension, they are open to discussing the idea. France, however, is “rather strongly against,” the note adds.
But senior government officials in others capitals have separately told BuzzFeed News that the chances of any leader singlehandedly pushing the UK out without a deal are extremely low.
The diplomats were also told that no deal remains a possibility, and if the UK were to leave the EU without an agreement next week, the European Council’s conclusions would outline three preconditions to opening trade talks.
As previously reported by BuzzFeed News, these would include:
Ensuring that Britain abides by its financial commitments — the so-called Brexit bill part of the agreement;
Guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens in the UK as well as of Britons working and residing elsewhere in the EU;
Finding a solution that keeps open the border in Northern Ireland along the lines of the arrangement in the withdrawal agreement, meaning the backstop — the insurance policy that ensures that the border in Ireland remains open under all circumstances.
In effect, Britain would be asked to sign up to terms very similar to those contained in the Brexit agreement.
Senior officials in Brussels believe May’s talks with Corbyn are unlikely to deliver a specific outcome. Instead, the prime minister will emerge with a plan for the House of Commons to debate and vote on a series of options about the shape of Britain’s future trading relationship with the bloc.
If this were the case, the officials believe that the UK would need to delay Brexit by 9 or 12 months in order to give MPs enough time to come to a decision, pushing the exit date to the end of December or as far back as March 31, 2020.
Asked whether May’s request for a short extension changed their thinking, a senior EU official told BuzzFeed News, “No,” adding, “and she knows this too.”