Just 10 days to go, but Brussels is keeping all Brexit options open.
EU leaders will gather for a summit in Brussels on Thursday at which the 27 (initially without Theresa May) will discuss a likely request for an extension of the U.K.’s March 29 Brexit deadline.
An intense debate is already underway in Brussels and in European capitals over the relative merits, drawbacks and risks of either a relatively short extension — lasting perhaps until July 1 — or a longer extension of potentially a year or more.
But with the U.K. prime minister having yet to make a formal request for a delay, let alone expressing any particular preference for a long or short extension, EU officials and diplomats said there is little they could do but await further clarity.
It’s hardly an unfamiliar position.
“I think that a long extension — I have said it to ministers — must be linked to something new, a new event, a new political process” — Michel Barnier
As the watching and waiting continued, EU officials said their paramount goals are to avoid a potentially catastrophic no-deal departure by the U.K. and to safeguard the functioning of EU institutions by trying to limit the potential complications an extension would pose for the European Parliament election in May. They are also adamant the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.
Much, they said, would depend on May’s request, which is expected to arrive Wednesday in the form of a letter from London. But even that request may offer little certainty. Some officials said Britain could potentially request both a short and long extension depending on how circumstances unfold — a short, technical delay if the U.K. parliament ratifies the Brexit deal before March 29; or a longer extension if it does not.
The uncertainty hung like a dark cloud over the European Council on Tuesday as ministers met for a General Affairs council meeting. Nathalie Loiseau, the French European affairs minister, said the 27 were certain to grant a short extension if the withdrawal treaty is ratified and the U.K. just needs time.
“A short extension in order to conclude the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, of course that would be granted,” Loiseau said. “But we don’t even know whether it will be ratified, that is up to the British MPs to decide.” But Loiseau said an extension without justification would be a hard sell.
EU officials have insisted that any request by London for an extension must be justified with clear reasons for the delay.
“We need something new,” Loiseau said. “Because if it is an extension to remain in the same deadlock where we are now, how do we get out of it?”
Michael Roth, the German minister for Europe, said patience was running low. “We are really exhausted by these negotiations and I expect clear and precise proposals by the British government, why such an extension is necessary,” Roth said.
That point was reiterated on Tuesday by the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, at a news conference after he briefed EU ministers in Brussels.
Barnier said that a request for a longer extension must come with “a new political process” in Britain. He did not specify what that means, but among the EU27 it is generally understood to involve a new national election, a second referendum or both.
British Prime Minister Theresa May | Jack Taylor/Getty Images
“I think that a long extension — I have said it to ministers — must be linked to something new, a new event, a new political process,” Barnier said.
EU officials have long expressed frustration that May, despite successfully brokering the Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying Political Declaration, has failed to generate any national consensus in the U.K. in support of the deal.
Among the more influential EU27 countries, officials said Germany favors more flexibility in granting an extension, provided there is justification from London, while France has taken a harder line, seeing little prospect of British political dynamics changing anytime soon.
Officials said there is also debate among the EU27 about when to make a decision on an extension. Several countries are pushing for the bloc to delay giving Britain an answer until much closer to the March 29 deadline, allowing as much time as possible for May to stage another vote in the House of Commons and persuade MPs to change their minds.
The chances of such a vote seemed to dwindle on Monday after the speaker, John Bercow, said another vote could not be held without substantial changes to the proposal. But the government is investigating ways to overcome the obstacle set by Bercow and hold another vote.
The Commons has already rejected the Brexit deal twice by massive majorities, and any large shift in votes is expected only if May can persuade the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland to come round to supporting it. That would bring most Brexiteers on her own backbenches into line. But even then, she is likely to need several votes from opposition Labour MPs.
Barnier, at his news conference, also suggested there is still room for at least cosmetic adjustments that could help win ratification of the treaty in London. He reiterated the EU’s offer that the Political Declaration, which sets out the framework for upcoming talks on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU, “could be made more ambitious in the coming days if a majority in the House of Commons so wishes.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn | Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Barnier’s emphasis on the Political Declaration was a gift to political forces in the House of Commons seeking a majority around an alternative, softer Brexit.
Even as he spoke, the foundations of just such a potential majority were being laid.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who wants a permanent customs union with the EU and close, lasting alignment with single market rules, met with Conservative MPs Nick Boles and Oliver Letwin, and other members of a cross-party group of backbenchers seeking what they call “Common Market 2.0,” keeping the U.K. in the single market.
“All participants pledged to work together and with others across parliament to find a Commons majority for a close economic relationship with the EU to break the Brexit impasse and bring the country together,” a Labour spokesperson said shortly after the meeting broke up.
“They discussed how to build greater support on areas of agreement between Labour’s alternative plan and Common Market 2.0 and find possible areas of compromise.”
They could have an opportunity to test their plan in the Commons within days. Under the terms of the Withdrawal Act, the government’s defeat on its Brexit deal last week binds it to put forward an amendable motion on Brexit, which will be debated by the house on Monday. MPs will have the opportunity to vote on amendments that could help to determine a way forward out of the impasse.