BUCHAREST — Now the EU27 leaders really do hold all the cards, but so far no one is threatening to play the joker.
The U.K. parliament voted Thursday to extend the U.K.’s March 29 deadline for leaving the EU, but it is up to the EU27 leaders to grant an extension and they can only do so by unanimous vote. And while there is a strong appetite to find an end to the Brexit process, there are indications that an extension would be granted — potentially with strict conditions attached.
Leaders do not want to be held responsible for throwing the U.K. over the proverbial cliff-edge, something that would entail not only significant economic damage to the U.K. but also parts of the EU.
What is clear is that the decision is neither in the hands of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, nor Council President Donald Tusk, who earlier on Thursday expressed his preference for a long delay of a year or more and said he would urge EU leaders to consider that. Tusk believes there is no consensus in Britain for any Brexit plan and that Theresa May and her citizens need time to sort out their differences.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in a speech at the European Committee of the Regions in Bucharest, Romania, also said the decision was beyond his control.
“We take the position that Brexit without a deal is the worst scenario, which is why we are going to seek solutions which will allow for the acceptance of the negotiated agreement” — Jacek Czaputowicz, Polish foreign minister
“I know there is mention of the extension which might be requested by the U.K,” Barnier said ahead of the key House of Commons vote. “It is not my responsibility. It is the leaders, the heads of state and government, who will be meeting next week. They will decide.”
Around the Continent, the initial soundings were positive for a delay.
In a statement following the vote, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said “I welcome the House of Commons vote for an extension as it reduces the likelihood of a cliff edge, no-deal Brexit on March 29th. But we now need to hear from London about what purpose an extension would serve and how long it would last.”
“I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response,” he added.
In Madrid, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry said, “We consider the issue of Gibraltar closed” — an indication that the Spanish government would not revisit the status of the British overseas territory as part of the decision on an extension.
He hinted though that if the Withdrawal Agreement were to be reopened — something the EU has emphatically refused to do — then the Gibraltar question could be back on the table. “Let’s wait and see what the U.K. proposes.”
Because of the unanimity requirement, any country could use the request as leverage to make some other demand — either of Britain or of the other EU nations.
But despite the weakness of May’s likely position next week, the 27 must tread carefully. May is already under pressure from some segments of her Conservative Party to walk away with no deal, and making the terms of extension too onerous would give those hardline voices more clout.
There has also been little indication that EU leaders intend to use the situation for national advantage.
One official for the governing League party in Italy said Rome was “very unlikely” to block an extension of the Brexit deadline, dismissing as absurd rumors the suggestion that the country’s populist government might cut a deal with ardent Brexiteers in London.
Similarly in Warsaw, the Polish government has given no indication it intends to block an extension.
“We take the position that Brexit without a deal is the worst scenario, which is why we are going to seek solutions which will allow for the acceptance of the negotiated agreement,” Jacek Czaputowicz, the Polish foreign minister, told the Polish parliament on Wednesday.
Czaputowicz later told reporters: “We are observing what is happening in Great Britain, the voting. There is a certain expectation when they conclude. Maybe we will have to meet the needs of the British authorities and the public and extend that period a little bit, maybe a little more time is needed for reflection.”
In Brussels, a Commission spokesperson issued a statement following the MPs’ vote for a delay, saying the decision would rest with the 27 leaders.
“We take note of tonight’s votes,” the spokesperson said. “A request for an extension of Article 50 requires the unanimous agreement of all 27 Member States. It will be for the European Council (Article 50) to consider such a request, giving priority to the need to ensure the functioning of the EU institutions and taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension. President Juncker is in constant contact with all leaders.”
Jan Cienski contributed reporting.
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