Just two days away from a potentially calamitous no-deal Brexit, European Union leaders were moving closer to granting the United Kingdom a new delay — possibly of up to a year — to its departure from the bloc.
British Prime Minister Theresa May headed Wednesday into an emergency EU summit, pleading for a second extension until June 30, but indicated she could accept a longer extension as many EU leaders have called for.
“What is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the withdrawal agreement,” May said as she arrived in Brussels. She added she was hopeful it could be as soon as May 22.
Most EU leaders indicated they could accept such an extension as long as Britain pledges not to use it to play an obstructionist course and undermine EU policies.
French president Emmanuel Macron was more critical, saying that no extension was guaranteed as long as there was no assurance that Britain would not upset EU policies during any transition.
“Nothing is decided,” Macron said upon arrival at the EU summit and insisted on “clarity” from May about what Britain wants, because, he said, “nothing should compromise the European project.”
According to the latest draft conclusions, Britain would be required to act “in a constructive and responsible manner throughout this unique period” of extended withdrawal, and would have to show “sincere cooperation.” It would have to act in “a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing member state.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU had “expectations” of Britain so that EU institutions can continue functioning “seamlessly.”
The issue came up after some British Conservative politicians threatened to become obstructionist. One of them, Mark Francois, said that if the U.K. remained in the bloc, “then in return we will become a Trojan Horse within the EU.”
If no extension materializes Wednesday, Britain would crash out of the bloc on Friday with no deal regulating the departure, unless it cancels Brexit independently. A drastic cliff-edge exit would bring huge costs to businesses and trade across the English Channel and be very cumbersome to travelers as it would likely hit airports, ports, tariff rules and standard regulations overnight.
EU countries, especially Macron’s France, have become increasingly exasperated with the political division and uncertainty in Britain about a way forward. In France, concerns have been growing about how badly a hard Brexit would hit the French economy.
Among conditions France is now setting to agree to a new delay: A “credible prospect” of some kind of solution to the British political deadlock; a promise that Britain won’t keep asking for more delays; and guarantees that Britain would not be involved in future EU decisions while its Brexit drama is playing out.
The bloc’s leaders have tried to help May over two years of negotiations, even after she missed her hand-picked Brexit departure date on March 29 because of a parliamentary revolt.
May’s future is uncertain whatever the EU decides.
She has previously said that “as prime minister” she could not agree to let Britain stay in the EU beyond June 30, and she has also promised to step down once Brexit is delivered.
Many Conservative Party lawmakers would like her to quit now and let a new leader take charge of the next stage of Brexit. But they can’t force her out until the end of the year, after she survived a no-confidence vote in December.
Every British initiative to get a deal so far has floundered. Several days of talks between May’s Conservative government and the main opposition Labour Party aimed at finding a compromise have failed to produce a breakthrough.
Labour favors a softer Brexit than the government has proposed, and wants to retain a close economic relationship with the bloc.
The two sides said they would resume their discussions after Wednesday’s EU summit.