Brussels: EU leaders were poised Thursday to offer Britain a short delay to Brexit, but only if MPs back Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal next week.
And they warn that the alternative is a cliff-edge exit in eight days’ time.
Brexit talks at the European summit overran, spilling into a working dinner that had been supposed to cover relations with China, as the other 27 EU powers debated how much more time to offer May beyond next week’s scheduled March 29 departure date.
A draft copy of their conclusions suggested they would allow Brexit to be pushed back to May 22, the day before European parliamentary elections, but European sources told AFP that France was pushing for an earlier May 7 deadline and talks continued.
The text also warned that any offer only applies “provided the withdrawal agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week”.
MPs have already rejected the text twice, most recently last week, plunging Britain into crisis.
But both May and the EU insist the draft withdrawal deal is the only option, warning that the alternative is that Britain ends its 46-year-old relationship with the bloc with no plan next Friday.
“In the case of a negative British vote then we’d be heading to a no deal,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters as he arrived at the Brussels talks.
May also refused to rule out leaving the EU with no deal, blaming parliament for blocking her plan but saying she was determined to deliver Brexit.
She has requested a short delay to allow time for the ratification of her deal if it approved, but said she would not accept a longer postponement.
“What matters is that we recognise that Brexit is the decision of the British people and we need to deliver on that,” she told reporters.
‘Until the last moment’
May wrote to EU Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday asking for a delay, to June 30, to allow her to try one more time to get her deal through parliament.
But the European Commission’s legal advisers warn that “no extension is possible” beyond May 22, as that would require Britain to take part in European Parliament elections.
May has said it would be “unacceptable” to ask British voters to do this almost three years after they decided in the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.
Speaking before the meeting, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU’s offer of a delay would “put it fairly and squarely at the door of the British parliament to make that call”.
However, there are reports that some member states want the EU to offer a long delay if MPs reject May’s deal next week, in a vote expected on Tuesday or Wednesday.
EU diplomats previously suggested Britain would either have to leave before the European elections or take part in the vote and stay in the bloc until at least the end of the year.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Thursday that if there is another defeat, “then we will have to meet again next week”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel added: “We should do everything we can until the last moment to make an orderly Brexit possible.”
However, there is a chance the decision might be taken out of May’s hands.
The prime minister had intended to hold a third vote on her deal this week, but the Speaker of the House of Commons blocked it, citing 400-year-old precedent that says the same proposition cannot be put to MPs again and again.
May is hoping that the EU summit’s approval of fresh guarantees about the agreement will overcome the speaker’s objections.
A “no deal” next week risks huge disruption on both sides of the Channel, affecting everything from flights, to trade and causing uncertainty to millions of expatriates.
In a joint open letter to May on Thursday, British business and union leaders warned: “Our country is facing a national emergency.”
But May’s deal remains hugely unpopular among MPs on all sides of the Brexit debate, with some arguing it keeps Britain too closely to the EU, and others saying it would not keep it close enough.
British voters are also sharply divided.
More than a million people signed an online petition in 24 hours asking the British government to stop Brexit, and thousands are expected at a march in London this week.
Many pro-Europeans support a lengthy delay to Brexit, believing it would increase pressure at home for a general election or for a second referendum that might reverse the decision to leave.
But there is huge anger among those who want to leave the EU and do not understand why it is taking so long, while eight of May’s senior ministers last week voted against any delay.