EU leaders agreed to postpone Brexit day, imposing two new dates — April 12 and May 22 — that will determine the course of the U.K.’s departure.
The new plan, agreed at a summit in Brussels, was a flat rejection of U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for an extension of the Article 50 negotiating period to June 30.
Both new dates come with conditions, but in either event the original March 29 deadline — the so-called cliff-edge by which Britain would be expelled from the bloc with or without a divorce agreement — was put off, if only for two weeks.
EU27 leaders said that if the U.K. parliament ratifies the Brexit deal before the March 29 deadline, Britain can have until May 22 to complete the technical steps needed to ratify the deal, exit and begin a transition period. That date is a day before the European Parliament election begins.
If the House of Commons fails to vote by the end of next week, or votes to reject the deal for a third time — the outcome EU leaders appear to view as more likely given continuing political chaos in London — the U.K. would have until April 12 “to indicate a way forward.”
At a press conference after the EU leaders’ meeting, Council President Donald Tusk confirmed that May had agreed to the plan — though in truth, with a no-deal Brexit imminent she had little choice.
“What this means in practice is that until that date [April 12], all options will remain open and the cliff-edge date will be delayed,” said Tusk.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the discussion as “very intense but also very successful.”
In essence, the Council had granted Britain an extension until “April 11 or April 12”, she said. “If there is no positive decision [in the House of Commons], this will be the exit date.”
French President Emmanuel Macron said the new plan put the onus on the U.K. “I wanted to absolutely avoid a summit next week that would have been a crisis summit in bad conditions after maybe another non-decision,” he said.
“The clock is ticking not just on Brexit, the clock is also ticking in other areas,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, indicating a certain frustration that the EU has had to spend so much time on Britain’s departure.
In her own press conference, May reiterated her view that it would be wrong for the U.K. to participate in the European Parliament election. “I believe strongly that it would be wrong to ask people in the U.K. to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU,” she said.
“What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner,” she added.
The decision came after hours of agonizing, at times angry, debate and followed the U.K. prime minister’s latest appearance at a European Council summit where she left colleagues infuriated by her lack of clarity and inability to steer the Brexit process.
“The European Council agrees to an extension until 22 May 2019, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week,” the leaders wrote in the formal conclusion of their deliberations. “If the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until 12 April 2019 and expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council.”
“Our main goal today was to avoid a hard Brexit next week. So there will be a delay until April 12. If the House of Commons votes for the existing deal next week, there will be an extension until May 22 to allow for an orderly Brexit,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters as he left the summit venue.
“But if they do not agree [to the deal] then we’re a step closer to a hard Brexit, of course,” he said, adding that he “strongly recommended” British MPs vote for the deal.
May had requested an extension until June 30 — ignoring a warning from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that the U.K. would have to participate in the European Parliament election if it stayed in the bloc beyond May 22. Leaders swiftly dismissed that request out of hand.
But May’s lack of clarity about what might happen if she failed to win ratification of the deal, and her unwillingness to state what next-steps she envisioned, left the 27 leaders flummoxed and more divided than at any point in the more than two-year-long Brexit process.
The EU27 spent an hour and 45 minutes questioning May at the start of the summit, and got virtually nowhere. One senior EU official said May’s answers were “not always crystal clear.”
Another senior EU official said: “This discussion did not add much in terms of substance. For the leaders, they didn’t get anything that they didn’t know.”
The discussion continued once May had left the room, but the fierce disagreements among the 27 forced the leaders to upend their summit agenda and put off a planned dinner discussion about China and the EU’s place in the world. Instead, they took a break, and resumed the Brexit discussion over dinner — a demonstration that despite their best efforts, Brexit to a large degree has hijacked the EU’s most substantive policy agenda.
It was during dinner that some of the most heated exchanges took place, officials said.
Chief among the factors that complicated the discussions over when to set the new cliff-edge was the upcoming European Parliament election. Leaders fear that the EU will face an institutional crisis if somehow the U.K. remained a member of the bloc but refused to participate in the election and send representatives to Brussels as required under the EU treaties.
But there were numerous other factors, including concerns about how Brexit would impact individual countries, especially Belgium, which has a national election on May 26, coinciding with the EU election.
French President Emmanuel Macron pushed to bring the proposed May 22 deadline forward to May 7. He also took a hard line in suggesting that the EU might need to simply eject the U.K. without any agreement — a move that could prove economically disastrous not just to Britain but to the EU, especially neighboring countries like Ireland and the Netherlands.
In her own press conference, May appeared to row back from her bullish statement in Downing Street last night in which she blamed MPs for the Brexit impasse. That brought an angry response from many of those she is trying to persuade to back her Brexit deal.
“Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do,” she said.
Zia Weise contributed reporting.