European Union leaders will grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Brexit at an emergency summit on Wednesday but will argue over how long and on what terms as they struggle to end Britain’s troublesome membership.
French President Emmanuel Macron was pushing to withhold any commitment to extend Friday’s deadline much beyond elections to the European Parliament on May 23-26 unless May binds herself, and any potentially more anti-EU successor, not to use Britain’s final months to disrupt the workings of the Brussels machinery.
But three weeks after Macron’s impatience with France’s historic cross-Channel rival dominated the last summit, when Brexit was put back by a fortnight, diplomats said he again would face a more cautious line from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she favours an extension of “several months”.
Just two days before Britain will otherwise leave the bloc with no treaty to clarify legal matters and no transition to new trading arrangements, few expect that to happen on Friday.
Other leaders, too, insist they will not force Britain out against its will and May has asked them to wait until June 30 as she seeks help from her Labour opponents to build an elusive majority in parliament behind her plan for leaving the EU.
“I want us to be able to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way as soon as possible and that’s what I am going to be working for,” May told reporters on arrival.
“I’ve asked for an extension to June 30, but what is important is that the extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, so we could leave on May 22 and start to build our brighter future.”
Much will hang on how May handles her peers.
“It is not certain there will be a delay and it is not certain what that would mean,” said an extremely cautious Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel before he hosted Macron and other leaders from Britain’s neighbours at pre-summit talks to weigh how to cope with the disruption of any no-deal Brexit.
Summit chair Donald Tusk has proposed a “flextension” of nine months to a year to give Britain time to overcome a deadlock over parliament’s refusal to ratify the treaty May agreed with the EU in November.
May has given herself an option to accept that by announcing she is ready to hold an election in Britain for the European Parliament on May 23. If Britons do not vote, the country must leave, deal or not, on June 1, according to a draft summit agreement seen by Reuters.
Otherwise, Britain would leave as soon as it ratifies the deal, or without one when the extension ends.
Macron is not happy with that permissive approach and is seeking a further “backstop” to any deal with May that would entail a further summit once it was clearer whether early ratification or a British EU election were happening or not.
For Britain to extend its membership beyond June, Macron will argue, it must sign up formally to forswear its right to block key decisions taken by the other 27, notably on the EU budget and key executive appointments. Fearing “blackmail” by pro-Brexit Conservatives seeking to take over from May, Paris will insist on stricter conditions for the longer the extension.
Once granted an extension to, say, the end of this year, a new British government would be unable to leave earlier unless it signed up to the withdrawal agreement, something Europeans are well aware that some of May’s rivals are unwilling to do.
As leaders and officials gather for yet another Brexit summit with no sign of Britain’s political paralysis ending, other participants are less keen on committing to meet again. Diplomats said the outcome would depend on the “mood of the room” after May addresses the 27 at 6.30 p.m. (1630 GMT).
Previous presentations have not gone well, participants have said, with May struggling to persuade fellow political leaders that she has real faith in her own ability to find a majority.
In preparatory meetings, diplomats say, all governments have seen pros and cons to shorter and longer extensions. Both the French and German envoys spoke on Tuesday in favour of using a short delay to keep pressure on London to reach a deal.
The Dutch, among others, argued that a long extension would increase pressure on pro-Brexit critics of May’s deal to accept it for fear that a long delay would increase the chances of Britons changing their minds and staying in the EU.
EU leaders are exasperated with May’s handling of a tortuous and potentially expensive divorce that many in Brussels feel is a distraction from ensuring the bloc can hold its own beside the United States and China on trade and other issues.
Once she has addressed the 27, May will have to withdraw while they debate her country’s fate. She spent the evening at the March summit in Britain’s delegation rooms in the EU summit building while the others dined together. Once they reached their conclusions, she was called to meet Tusk for a briefing on the Union’s conclusions before they were made public.
The Northern Irish party which props up her minority government said May was embarrassing the United Kingdom.
“Nearly three years after the referendum the UK is today effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders,” Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds said.
After a pledge to resign failed to get her deal over the line at a third attempt, May launched crisis talks with Labour in the hope of breaking the domestic impasse. But in Brussels, May is unlikely to be able to trumpet any breakthrough with Labour – after Tuesday’s round of talks, Labour said it had not yet seen any shift away from May’s red lines.
Source: News Agencies