(This January 8 story deletes reference to maximum exit deadline delay in paragraph 9.)
By Alastair Macdonald
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union is looking at how Brexit might be postponed and is open to the idea, with EU officials talking of delays from a few weeks to a full year, but it questions whether any such move can prevent a divided nation crashing out in chaos.
Senior representatives of member states and EU institutions in Brussels who are close to negotiations told Reuters that an extension to the March 29 deadline for Britain to leave the bloc was becoming more likely as Prime Minister Theresa May struggles to win parliamentary backing for a treaty she agreed last month.
“It’s probably the most likely outcome now,” said one senior official who said EU leaders now expected May to either lose a vote on the withdrawal agreement due next Tuesday — or to postpone a reckoning with lawmakers, as she did a month ago.
“We can, of course, postpone Brexit. No one wants a no- deal,” said a second. “But the question would remain - what is it for? To hold a general election? Another referendum?”
It is not clear that Britain can resolve its problems, this person said, so EU leaders would question the point of a delay.
The senior figure said a no-deal Brexit would hurt the EU less than Britain and added, in an echo of May’s defiant mantra early in the talks: “No deal is better than a bad deal.”
Defeat for May would leave the process in uncharted territory. Talks between Britain and the EU on how to handle that have been very limited, with only close aides to leaders involved, EU officials say. EU experts have prepared various scenarios and British officials have sought indications of how delaying Brexit might work, one official said.
May’s government insisted on Tuesday that it has no plans to delay the March 29 departure, following a newspaper report that British officials had sounded out the EU about a postponement.
Among Brexit scenarios now being considered in Brussels are:
— Britain asking to delay departure under Article 50 of the EU treaty. This would require unanimous approval by the other 27 states — something EU officials say would be likely to be granted.
— Britain revoking its notice of withdrawal, while avoiding a huge backlash from Brexit supporters by indicating it would revive its notification shortly. Under an EU court ruling last month this would not need EU approval and so may prove simpler.
— Britain revoking its notice of withdrawal pending a new election or referendum to decide how — or whether — to leave.
— A short delay of at most three months, so as to avoid a problem for the European Parliament. The legislature is due to meet in July for a first sitting after EU elections in late May.
— A longer delay of up to a year, which would complicate the legal status of the new European Parliament. This might mean Britain having to elect new EU lawmakers in May, even if it still planned to leave the Union within the coming year.
May has been seeking fresh commitments from Brussels to appease opponents, some of whom prefer leaving with no deal and others who would rather not leave the EU at all.
But EU leaders have lined up to rule out any change to the draft and officials say that any public “reassurances” that the EU might give would be limited to reiterations of the terms.
Editing by Gareth Jones