Theresa May embraced the idea of a flexible Brexit extension ahead of her pitch to EU leaders for a further delay until June 30.
Arriving at an emergency European Council summit on Brexit, the U.K. prime minister said that while she had asked for the specific date, what is “important” is that “any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the Withdrawal Agreement.”
She said that could mean the U.K. leaving on May 22, before the European Parliament election, but there are serious doubts among EU leaders that her attempts to win cross-party support for her deal in the House of Commons can succeed in time.
In his invitation letter to the summit, European Council President Donald Tusk wrote: “Our experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June.”
Leaders of the EU27 countries will hear a formal request from May before meeting without her to determine the U.K.’s departure timetable. The risk of a no-deal Brexit this Friday appears to have receded, with EU diplomats insisting that a refusal to grant any extension at all is highly unlikely.
Theresa May formally presents her case to the European Union for a short delay to Brexit until June 30, 2019 | Leon Neal/ Pool via Getty Images
However, there remains heated debate between leaders on the length of any further extension and the conditions that would be placed on it.
Tusk has suggested a long extension of up to a year, which could be terminated as soon as both sides have ratified the Withdrawal Agreement — something May’s words suggest she would be willing to accept.
But French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to lead those taking a harder line, arguing that the U.K.’s lingering presence in the EU must not be allowed to hold up reforms to the bloc that he is seeking.
“I will listen to Theresa May with a lot of impatience, but for me, nothing is a given, nothing, and particularly when I hear the rumors,” he said upon arrival at the summit.
On the prospect of a long extension, he said he wants to hear from May on “what is the political project that justifies it and what are the clear propositions?”
Austria’s Chancellor Sebastian Kurz also took a tough line. “I am in favor of an extension that is as short as possible. I’ve always said I find it absurd for the Brits to participate in the EU election. I won’t oppose [their participation] — but it’s not an ideal solution,” he said.
“Our common purpose is to get the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement” — Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar
But Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, in brief remarks upon arrival, took a softer approach, emphasizing the importance of “an orderly Brexit and the unity of the 27” but also highlighting that the U.K. must start preparing to take part in the European election if it wants an extension.
“With that, the functionality of the European institutions can be guaranteed,” Merkel said. May’s government this week instructed election officials to begin preparations to hold the May 23 poll, but insisted that it is not guaranteed it would take place.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he would keep “an open mind” on whether the extension should be short or long, while Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said that “any extension has to be useful and serve a purpose.”
“Our common purpose is to get the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement,” he added.
Slovenian Prime Minister Marjan Šarec told POLITICO that at the last European Council meeting he had compared the U.K. to someone trying to commit suicide by drowning.
“I was a little bit provocative because I said that somebody decided to commit suicide and now we are all saving him but he doesn’t want to be saved. So by drowning, he takes us all down. That’s what I said and that’s how I see the situation,” he said.
Šarec added that there are no guarantees about the U.K. political situation: “We don’t know how long the U.K. government will last. We don’t know who will be the next prime minister. We don’t know if they will be constructive or not.”
Of the statements from EU leaders on the red carpet, three countries’ leaders — France, Slovenia and Austria — expressed a preference for a short extension. Eight countries — Germany, Italy, Denmark, Ireland, Portugal, Czech Republic, Poland and the Netherlands — were in favor of a long extension. While the leaders of Luxembourg, Sweden, Romania, Spain, Hungary, Latvia and Estonia did not indicate a preference.
Maïa de La Baume, Andrew Gray, David M. Herszenhorn, Lili Bayer and Zia Weise contributed reporting.