BRUSSELS — The EU’s 27 leaders will allow the UK to delay Brexit until May 22 on the condition that MPs approve the withdrawal agreement.
But should MPs vote against the withdrawal agreement, Britain will have to present a plan by April 12 indicating whether it wants to request a longer extension and hold European Parliament elections, or exit on that day without a deal.
April 11 is the date by which the UK has to organise European Parliament elections.
“What is decided, in agreement with [Theresa] May: either Withdrawal Agreement approved by House of Commons next week, then orderly Brexit on 22 May or 12 April disorderly Brexit; or request for another extension,” a senior EU official told BuzzFeed News.
At a press conference after conclusions had been formally adopted by the EU's 27 leaders, who were meeting in Brussels for a European Council summit, Donald Tusk, the president of the council, confirmed that he had consulted with May throughout the evening.
Until April 12, all options remain on the table, said Tusk. “The UK Government will still have a choice of a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50." He added: "The 12th of April is a key date in terms of the UK deciding whether to hold European Parliament elections. If it has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible."
The summit conclusions state: "The European Council agrees to an extension to 22 May, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week. If the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until 12 April, and expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward for the consideration by the European Council."
An EU27 leader told BuzzFeed News that the April date shouldn't be intended as an option to automatically extend the process, and the 27 leaders expect the UK to present a workable plan if there is to be a lengthy delay to Brexit. The onus is on the UK, the leader explained.
The decision came after nearly eight hours of discussions between the 27 leaders, which stretched into dinner. "For the first time there are real differences [between the leaders]," a source with knowledge of the discussions said.
Some leaders, including French president Emmanuel Macron, were pushing to adopt a harder line to pressure the UK, while others, such as German chancellor Angela Merkel, were keen to keep all options on the table so to not preempt what might happen in the British Parliament next week.
"The clever wording" in the conclusions that leaders eventually landed on was driven by France and Germany, the same source added.
An earlier draft of the conclusions seen by BuzzFeed News only proposed an extension until May 22, provided MPs voted for the agreement in the coming days, which would have meant that leaders would have in all likelihood had to meet again next week if Parliament rejected the deal.
The fact that leaders decided to eventually set out a more detailed plan that provides options for both outcomes is a sign that the leaders are losing faith in May's ability to deliver a deal through Parliament, sources said.
Ahead of the 27 leaders' meeting among themselves to agree on the conclusions and discuss the latest Brexit developments, May was given the opportunity to provide an update to the room.
A source with knowledge of the discussions told BuzzFeed News that May was “evasive” and “tightlipped”. The prime minister was repeatedly asked by several leaders what she would do if MPs vote the deal down. May didn’t answer the question, said the source.
The same source noted that views among the leaders were hardening, and warned that the risks of no-deal were high, should MPs vote against the exit deal again and come back with vacuous requests for more time.
A majority of member states have taken on board the European Commission’s recommendation of limiting a short extension to before the European elections. May had requested an extension until June 30 in her letter to Tusk on Thursday.
A leaked European Commission memo seen by BuzzFeed News earlier this week said an extension until June 30 “would entail serious legal and political risks for the European Union and would import some of the current uncertainties in the United Kingdom into the EU27. Any other scenario would also have direct legal and practical consequences for the election of Members to the European Parliament in 14 of our Member States.”
There was some better news for May in the conclusions, which also state that the leaders approve the package of instruments and assurances agreed by the prime minister and the European Commission in Strasbourg earlier this month. May had asked the 27 leaders to endorse the measures, in her letter to Tusk.
The package was intended to provide additional assurances and clarifications that the backstop – the insurance policy in the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under all circumstances – was temporary, and the EU couldn’t negotiate in bad faith to keep the UK trapped in it.
According to a diplomatic note of a meeting of EU27 ambassadors that took place on the eve of the summit, there was a range of views on the extension date among the diplomats, with some expressing a preference for April — the deadline by when the UK needs to organise the elections — and others signalling they would be willing to accept the end of June, before the new Parliament sits. But the vast majority of member states were for limiting the extension to May, in effect adopting the position set out by Tusk earlier in the day, the diplomat added.
European diplomats are baffled as to why May requested an extension until the end of June despite being advised against that by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
“She asked us to break EU treaties,” said one, adding: “It sets the precedent that a member state can break the treaties.”
Although they were expected to share their views on possible scenarios, the 27 leaders were not initially expected to make a decision at this summit on what they would do in the likely event that MPs voted against the withdrawal agreement for a third time next week.
And it is not yet clear what their position will be come April. Some governments, including France, Spain, and Belgium, have adopted a harder line, while others, such as Germany, are more open-minded.
Arriving at the summit in Brussels, French president Emmanuel Macron said that while he was open to a short technical extension if the withdrawal agreement is approved by MPs, a rejection would point to no deal.
“In case of a negative British vote, we would go towards a no-deal,” Macron said.
The 27 leaders have similarly different views on whether to allow for a longer extension, which would see the UK participate in the European Parliament elections as well as in EU decision-making processes for many more months beyond the scheduled Brexit date of March 29.
“If the meaningful vote fails, the spectrum goes from no-deal to a long extension,” said the diplomat.
But, all of the European government and EU officials BuzzFeed News has spoken to in recent days and weeks are in agreement that the longer the extension, the higher the bar for the UK. They say more precise reasons to justify such a delay, or exceptional political circumstances, such as an election or a referendum, would be needed.
“The cost for the EU associated with a longer extension is much higher,” a diplomat said.
Governments were weary of trying to reach a preemptive position because that would mean trying to predict what might happen in the UK should the vote fail.
Instead, the 27 will wait for the UK to make clear what kind of extension it wants before considering a response.
The conclusions agreed by the leaders in Brussels also reiterated that “there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement”, and warned that “any unilateral commitment, statement or other act should be compatible with the letter and spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement”.
The leaders also called on work to prepare for all possible outcomes to continue.
May has repeatedly said that she would not contemplate an extension beyond the end of June. In a televised speech on Wednesday the prime minister blamed MPs for having to delay Brexit.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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