BRUSSELS — It is perhaps the only time that Jean-Claude Juncker has emerged as a hero of the Brexiteers. On Thursday, after Boris Johnson and the European Union announced that they’d finally agreed a Brexit deal, the president of the European Commission told reporters: “If we have a deal, we have a deal, and there is no need for a prolongation.”
His words were seized on by pro-Brexit commentators, as well as some news organisations, as the EU officially ruling out extending the Brexit deadline beyond Oct. 31, even if the UK’s Parliament rejects the deal at a special sitting on Saturday. It would also have been music to Johnson’s ears as it would have narrowed the MPs’ choice to his deal or no deal.
But the reality is that the decision on extending Article 50 is not Juncker’s to make, and the leaders of the EU’s 27 remaining states would likely consider a delay despite not committing themselves one way or another at their summit in Brussels on Thursday.
The 27 leaders endorsed the deal at the European Council meeting without taking a joint position on whether they would be prepared to delay Brexit.
"The European Council invites the Commission, the European Parliament and the Council to take the necessary steps to ensure that the agreement can enter into force on 1st November 2019, so as to provide for an orderly withdrawal," the summit conclusions read.
UK MPs will vote on the agreement, which was sealed just a few hours earlier, on Saturday. With the DUP having said that it will not back the deal, it is unclear whether Johnson has the numbers he needs to get the accords through Parliament. Should the prime minister fails to do so he is expected to have to ask to delay Brexit for a third time.
A senior European government official told BuzzFeed News that the summit conclusions do not mean that the bloc has blocked a potential extension, nor that one wouldn’t be granted.
Indeed, the leaders briefly discussed their respective positions on the issue during the summit. "The feeling is that an extension would, if requested, be given," the official said.
The official added, however, that an extension shouldn’t be taken for granted, and would need a clear reason such as an election.
“There would be a debate,” the official said, noting that several leaders from major member states hadn’t expressed a view on the issue, reserving judgement during Thursday’s discussion.
It is understood that Juncker’s comments were an attempt at trying to help Johnson get the deal through Parliament.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, the EU body which represents the 27 leaders, told a press conference on Thursday afternoon: “If there is a request for an extension, I will consult member states to see how we will react.”
Tusk told reporters that the ball was in the UK’s court and that he had no idea how Saturday’s vote in the House of Commons would go.