BRUSSELS –– EU leaders have agreed to delay Brexit until Oct. 31 in a sign that they have little confidence that Theresa May will be able to pass a withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons before European parliamentary elections.
October emerged as a compromise after more than four hours of discussion among the 27 heads of state and government at a European Council summit in Brussels.
The majority of governments were inclined 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 — until the end of the year. This was also the preferred option for European Council president Donald Tusk.
But French president Emmanuel Macron and a small group of other leaders adopted a harder line. According to a source with knowledge of Wednesday’s discussions, Macron pushed for a shorter extension to June 30, arguing that there were not enough safeguards and a credible UK proposal to justify a long extension.
In the end, the two positions met halfway. An EU27 leader described the night’s discussions as “harder than usual”, but added that there was “no acrimony. Everyone was very collaborative,” the head of government told BuzzFeed News.
The UK had been due to exit the bloc this Friday, but, faced with a parliamentary stalemate after three failed attempts at getting MPs to pass her Brexit deal, May had asked for Brexit to be delayed to June 30, telling MPs that “as prime minister” she was not prepared to delay beyond that date.
The new October deadline means the UK is now due to exit the EU before the new European Commission takes office in November, and will have to hold EU elections if the deal isn't passed before May 22. If Britain doesn't to hold the elections, it would exit with no-deal on June 1.
The summit’s conclusions also include a review clause to take stock of the situation in June. Alongside agreeing on an exit date, much of Wednesday’s discussion centred on identifying safeguards against potential bad UK behaviour.
Asked about the review at a press conference following the meeting, Tusk explained that it was simply to take stock, and not cliff edge or a date to decide on further extensions. He also confirmed that Britain would be able to exit early once the withdrawal agreement is ratified.
Earlier in the evening, the 27 leaders met with Theresa May to discuss her extension request in a Q&A session that lasted just over an hour. A source close to the discussions described May’s intervention as more “solid” than usual. However, the prime minister wasn’t able to provide specifics.
Several of the leaders questions focused on whether a longer extension would be better than the short delay she had asked for. Although the sense was that the prime minister appeared open to the idea, as long as she could end the arrangement early, it wasn’t clear “what she would do with it", said the source.
EU leaders’ decision to extend Article 50 without a clear purpose represents somewhat of a softening on the stance they have held throughout the negotiations.
When they met last month to discuss the first extension beyond the original March 29 deadline, they agreed 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.
UK government ministers have been locked in talks with their Labour counterparts since last week to find a way out of the deadlock Britain finds itself in.
But the EU and the 27 leaders are sceptical that the impasse will be broken any time soon, and that the withdrawal agreement, which has already been rejected three times by UK MPs, will be approved by June, opening the door to the longer delay.
In his invitation to the leaders this week, Tusk, who had asked leaders to consider an extension of up to a year, wrote: “[O]ur experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June. In reality, granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates.”
He added: “This is why I believe we should also discuss an alternative, longer extension.”
Arriving at the summit, French president Emmanuel Macron said he would be guided by three principles: maintaining the coherence and functioning of the European project, respecting the UK voters’ democratic decision to leave the EU, and the need for clarity from May.
“The time to decide is now,” Macron told reporters.
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said: “One thing is important: any extension must be useful and serve a purpose.”
German chancellor Angela Merkel was more conciliatory. “We must ask ourselves what's in the interest of good cooperation and what's in our interest. And that's an orderly Brexit and the unity of the 27,” she said.
Going into Wednesday’s summit, the expectation among European diplomats was that the 27 leaders would eventually lean towards a long extension. A senior official from a major European government described the mood at a preparatory meeting of EU27 ambassadors on Tuesday as a “consensus minus one”.
“Three quarters of the members states spoke,” the official said, and “about half [of these] were in favour of extending until December or March , the others were open to the idea in principle.”
But the French ambassador warned counterparts that his government would rather vote for a short extension if a long one didn’t come with sufficient safeguards attached, leading officials to believe that the debate over the length of any extension wasn’t definitively settled.
BuzzFeed News reported on Tuesday that Macron was seeking a series of binding stringent terms to guarantee the UK would act with “sincere cooperation”, and that a future British prime minister couldn’t disrupt the work of the bloc while the UK was a withdrawing member state.
A diplomat from another major European government told BuzzFeed News on Wednesday that several of Macron’s requests, such as the use of periodical compliance checks and depriving the UK of key EU posts and voting rights, would be legally and politically difficult.
Other diplomats claimed the risk of the UK disrupting the EU were overblown. “There isn’t much of a risk of a British prime minister going rogue,” a senior diplomat said. “They can’t destroy the EU in a couple of months.”