Britain is likely to be offered a final long extension ending on 31 December after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, failed to convince the the bloc’s capitals that Theresa May has a plan to break the Brexit impasse.
A number of member states, most prominently France, along with Slovenia, Greece, Austria and Spain, remain sceptical about a lengthy extension, citing the risks to the EU of Britain behaving badly.
Barnier implored EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg to keep the pressure on MPs to back the deal by supporting May’s request for a Brexit delay only up until 30 June, a leaked diplomatic note of the debate reveals.
© Reuters Michel Barnier implored EU ministers to keep the pressure on MPs to back the deal by supporting Theresa May’s request for a delay only up until 30 June.But, according to the note seen by the Guardian, there is instead growing support for the idea of a lengthy extension, with around nine months looking likely. None of the EU27 ruled out such a delay, instead insisting on a “mechanism” to keep check on the British government’s behaviour.
France’s Europe minister, Amélie de Montchalin, was said to have told her colleagues during the meeting: [The UK] mustn’t stand in the way of any decisions that the EU would have taken without them”.
One option that has been discussed in recent days is a requirement on the prime minister to set out in writing her intention for the UK to act in “sincere cooperation” with the bloc, and for a “weighing point” to be set up in October when Brussels would judge whether the UK was living up to its commitments.
“That might be the price for French support,” said one EU diplomat.
Before Barnier’s meeting in Luxembourg, Germany’s EU affairs minister had complained that “absolutely nothing has changed” in Westminster, 24 hours before the bloc’s leaders were due to come together to decide on a possible Brexit delay.
© Getty Michael Roth
Michael Roth said cross-party talks had not offered any hope of an imminent Brexit breakthrough, leaving the UK facing no deal or a long extension to its EU membership.
The prime minister has written to Brussels asking for a limited extension until 30 June to allow her to get the withdrawal agreement approved in the Commons.
© ReutersShe has claimed that the talks with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, are evidence of a new direction being taken by the British government.
But, before May’s meetings on Tuesday with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin, Roth offered a downbeat assessment of the state of play.
“It’s groundhog day again,” he said. “Unfortunately I have to say that the conditions the European council has decided on in its last meeting have not been met. This means time will run out on 12 April.”
Roth added: “Of course the EU continues to be willing to talk, there is also a letter by the prime minister, May. We will very carefully have to look at this letter. We are finally expecting substantial steps in the right direction. So far absolutely nothing has changed.
“Of course we are also thinking about such a deadline extension, including a long extension of the deadline, but this also has to come with very strict criteria.
“For example, it cannot be that there are speculations without an obligation of the British side to also partake in the European elections. Therefore we are in a very frustrating situation and the EU has to finally also take care of issues of the future.
“We might also have to give the British side time so they can finally be clear about what they actually want. Apparently the very late talks with the British opposition have not led to any progress whatsoever either.”
A lack of confidence in May’s ability to find a majority for her withdrawal agreement has made a long extension of up to a year attractive to some EU capitals who want to avoid being repeatedly dragged into the Brexit drama.
Meanwhile, France has in recent days warned that having not found a clear plan to get the Brexit deal passed in the Commons, the UK government will have chosen by default to crash out of the bloc.
The UK is due to leave by 12 April unless the British government is able to “indicate a way forward”, which it is yet to do.
“That’s why there is not exactly an unlimited willingness of the European Union to always talk about extensions as long as there is no substantial progress on the British side,” Roth told reporters in Luxembourg, where Barnier was meeting EU affairs ministers.
de Montchalin, who has recently replaced Nathalie Loiseau as France’s EU affairs minister, told reporters: “The UK has asked for an extension. The French position hasn’t changed. We consider this demand is neither agreed nor automatic. It’s very important this demand comes with a credible political plan which will pass during the extension.”
George Ciamba, Romania’s minister for European affairs, welcomed May’s commitment to hold European elections if the UK were still a member state beyond 22 May but said the bloc needed to have more confidence that the Brexit impasse could be broken in Westminster.
He said: “For tomorrow, we have to find out the message coming from London. There is not so much new, besides the letter and beside the commitment that has to have all the political will behind to organise European elections.
“We are still looking to see how these different votes in the House of Commons can result in something meaningful because for the time being, it’s a sort of labyrinth. We still need more clarity and something that would give us an idea of how we go ahead.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, said he believed that the cross-party talks in themselves were a sufficiently new development for the EU to extend the negotiating period beyond the current cliff-edge of 12 April.
But Coveney admitted there were differing opinions within the bloc. “I suspect there will be comments from various different leaders as to their country’s preference in terms of long or short extension,” he said. “But I think there will be a strong view that countries need to work together to avoid a no-deal Brexit.”
Coveney added: “The current process that is under way in London, where the Conservative party and the Labour party are talking seriously about trying to find a middle-ground position is something I think ministers will want to encourage.
“They will also want to see a clear plan of how an extension can deliver what we all want, which is a managed and sensible Brexit with the withdrawal agreement ratified and in place, so we can move on to the next stage of Brexit in a controlled transition period.”