BRUSSELS/LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - Brexit will not be on Friday, EU leaders will confirm when they meet Prime Minister Theresa May at another crisis summit on Wednesday, but diplomats said they are still wrestling on how long it might be delayed and under what conditions.
May, still unable to find a parliamentary majority to back the orderly departure deal she negotiated with Brussels, shuttled to Berlin and Paris for pre-summit talks, while EU ministers gathered in Luxembourg to prepare Wednesday’s meeting.
Two weeks after a summit at which the other 27 EU leaders granted London a fortnight’s grace from the original departure deadline until April 12, EU ministers said May had failed to meet their conditions for a further extension - namely to show them a plan for using additional time to avoid crashing out.
Yet EU diplomats said there was no appetite around the table to drop the axe on Britain just yet. They said that talks, which were to continue among national envoys in Brussels later on Tuesday, were now focused on a proposal from summit chair Donald Tusk to give Britain up to a year longer to organise its withdrawal.
“People are tired and fed up - but what to do?” one said. “We won’t be the ones pushing the UK off the cliff edge.”
However, a long extension would entail Britain holding an election on May 23 to return lawmakers to the new session of the European Parliament, which starts on July 2. The EU would also like to limit Britain’s ability to influence key decisions, such as on the bloc’s new executive leadership or budget, if it stays for longer - though that would be far from easy to do legally.
A nine-month extension to Dec. 31 was gaining favour, diplomats said. But officials are also trying to come up with ways to pressure the British to take a decision sooner rather than later - in part, by offering a long delay that pro-Brexit critics of May’s deal fear might mean Brexit never happens.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, told reporters after briefing ministers in Luxembourg: “Any extension should serve a purpose. The length should be proportional to the objective. Our objective is an orderly withdrawal.
“No-deal will never by the EU’s decision,” he added. “In order to avoid no-deal, the UK needs to agree to a deal.”
An aide to French President Emmanuel Macron, who has taken a lead in pushing for the Union to be ready to show Britain the door if its parliament cannot ratify a withdrawal deal, said a full year would be too long. The aide stressed that Britain could be subject to reviews of its behaviour to ensure it did not disrupt the bloc from within.
May has renewed the request she made last month for an extension to June 30, saying that talks she launched last week with her Labour opponents gave her a chance of ratifying her Brexit deal after three previous defeats in parliament.
EU leaders would much prefer Britain to be out by May 22, before the elections, and will insist on Britain holding its own vote on May 23, even if it expects to have left before the new EU legislature sits in July. May has planned for a contingency of giving six weeks’ notice by Friday of an EU election.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will host a meeting of Britain’s closest neighbours, the ones who would be hardest hit by the disruption of a no-deal Brexit, just ahead of the summit. Officials expect the French, Dutch, Danish and Swedish leaders to attend - in principle to coordinate on trade arrangements, but also to discuss objectives for the summit in the evening.
May is due to address the 27 at 6:30 p.m. (1630 GMT) before leaving the room while the others discuss over dinner whether and how to postpone Friday’s deadline for Britain’s departure.
“Things are fluid,” a senior EU diplomat said. Leaders were meeting and calling each other across the continent, trying to coordinate, leaving the summit outcome still very uncertain.
Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Mark Heinrich