EU to grant May a Brexit delay, with conditions

Theresa May had requested the EU defer Friday’s exit until 30 June but in Brussels a 'flextension' until the end of the year or until March 2020 was being discussed.

FILE: Theresa May. Picture: AFP.

BRUSSELS - The European Union will grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Brexit at an emergency summit on Wednesday but leaders will debate a longer extension with conditions to prevent any future British leader jeopardising the bloc.

In what was cast in London as a national humiliation, May dashed to Berlin and Paris on the eve of the summit to ask Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to allow her to postpone a divorce that was supposed to have been Britain’s ‘liberation’

May had requested the EU defer Friday’s exit until 30 June but in Brussels a “flextension” until the end of the year or until March 2020 was being discussed, EU diplomats said.

Such an option would allow Britain to leave earlier if the Brexit deadlock in London could be broken, though the EU will try to stitch in conditions that prevent any successor to May from making mischief as Britain heads to the exit.

France opposes an automatic long extension at this stage and if London wants one, Macron could demand May sign up to a legally binding undertaking not to cause trouble by vetoing EU decisions.

A draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters said Britain would be granted another delay on certain conditions. It left the end-date blank.

“The United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives,” the draft read.

A long delay to Brexit would put the entire divorce in doubt by opening up the space for a second referendum and election, while harsh conditions would likely lead to a swifter end to May’s premiership.

European leaders fear a no-deal exit on Friday at 2200 GMT would spook financial markets, hurt the EU 27’s $16 trillion economy and undermine global trade.

“In my view, a short extension would not bring much,” said Detlef Seif, deputy EU spokesman for Merkel’s parliamentary group. “There is no appetite to return to a new European Council every six weeks to decide whether to renew the extension.”


EU leaders are exasperated with May’s handling of a tortuous and potentially expensive divorce that many in Brussels feel is a distraction from ensuring the bloc can hold its own beside the United States and China.

“People are tired and fed up (with Britain’s indecision), but what to do?” one EU diplomat said. “We won’t be the ones pushing the UK off the cliff edge.”

French officials have said if Britain draws out its divorce it should not take part in EU budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU’s executive commission.

Nearly two weeks after Britain was supposed to leave the EU, the weakest British prime minister in a generation said she feared Brexit might never happen as she battles to get a divorce deal ratified by a divided parliament.

After her pledge to resign failed to get her deal over the line, she launched crisis talks with the opposition Labour Party in the hope of breaking the domestic deadlock.

But when she arrives in Brussels, May is unlikely to be able to trumpet any breakthrough with Labour. After Tuesday’s round of talks, Labour said it had not yet seen a clear shift in May’s stance.

May will have to explain her Brexit strategy before the EU’s 27 leaders on Wednesday before leaving while they discuss her request over dinner. While they dine, she will wait for their decision in the British delegation’s quarters.

The British leader is then briefed on the EU’s decision by summit chairman Donald Tusk. The last time, May spoke for over an hour and took questions while the leaders discussed for about 5 hours.

The Northern Irish party which props up her minority government said May was embarrassing the United Kingdom.

“Nearly three years after the referendum the UK is today effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders,” Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds said.