BRUSSELS (REUTERS) – Britain could leave the European Union without a Brexit deal on April 12 if lawmakers fail next week to back Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with Brussels, EU leaders said after a crisis summit in Brussels on Thursday (March 21).
With just a week to go until Britain risks lurching out into legal limbo at midnight (2300 GMT) next Friday (March 29), EU leaders gave Mrs May an extra two months, until May 22, to leave if she wins next week’s vote in parliament. But she failed to convince the other 27 that she would succeed, prompting a frantic seven hours of talks to find a way to get Britain out without seeming to push.
The conclusion was a deal that suggested that Britain could, if Mrs May fails, come back and ask for a much longer delay. But this would be on the condition – likely a major stumbling block – that it takes part in elections to the new EU parliament on May 23.
For it to do so, British election law says that would have to be announced six weeks beforehand, by April 12.
If it does not call an EU election, Britain will be out.
“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 statement said.
“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.”
Mrs May welcomed the EU’s decision to delay Brexit, saying that lawmakers in the British parliament now had clear choices about what to do next.
“I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision,” Mrs May told reporters on Friday (March 22) following a meeting of EU leaders.
Grilled for over an hour by the other 27 leaders at the Thursday summit, Mrs May insisted she could win parliamentary backing next week for the deal that would ease Britain out on terms she agreed with the EU last year. But far from reassuring them, many concluded that she herself had little faith in overturning two previous heavy defeats by lawmakers in London.
“It did not go well,” said one EU official familiar with the talks. “They basically realised that she doesn’t really believe it herself. They don’t want to be seen to be forcing the Brits out now. But they are looking for ways to end the agony.” Following six hours of talks after Mrs May left the room, diplomats said leaders were still wrangling over possibilities.
MACRON TALKS TOUGH
French President Emmanuel Macron took a hard line, reflecting fears that Britain, long a drag on Paris’s goals of deeper European integration, would hang around inside the bloc for months or years. That, some say, could distract it from other issues and foster rising anti-EU nationalism.
Voicing more clearly the fears of business that a no-deal Brexit would hurt economies across the continent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was arguing for caution.
Mr Macron told reporters before the meeting: “In the event of another ‘no’ vote in Britain, we will be heading towards a ‘no- deal’. Everyone knows it.” Dr Merkel vowed to “work to the last minute” to avoid a disorderly withdrawal.
The 27 have shown remarkable unity on Brexit since Britons voted three years ago to leave. But the strain of deciding how to manage a “cliff edge” exit for the British economy brought the top leaders into animated discussion for the first time.
Diplomats said some of the harder brinkmanship from the continent should be seen partly as intended to pressure British members of parliament to back Mrs May’s deal or face chaos. “But there is a real risk of an accidental hard Brexit,” one warned.
Mrs May has said delaying Brexit beyond June would be a failure to deliver on the Brexit referendum of three years ago. So any choice to go for a longer delay might be accompanied by her stepping down and paving the way for a major political shake-up in London.
An address to the nation in which she blamed parliament for a failure to secure Brexit appeared to irritate the very lawmakers she needs to win over next week.
Mrs May said she was still working on support for her deal, which envisages negotiating a bespoke close relationship with the EU that keeps Britain outside its customs union or single market.
“I am still working on ensuring that parliament can agree a deal so that we can leave in an orderly way,” she told reporters.
“A short extension would give parliament the time to make a final choice that delivers on the result of the referendum.” But positions have hardened after a chaotic week when the parliament’s speaker questioned whether she could even bring her deal to a third vote.
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