The U.K. and European Council president Donald Tusk appeared to be nearing a consensus on a further Brexit extension. Prime Minister Theresa May has written to Mr. Tusk, asking for an extension till at least June 30 this year.
It comes as Mr. Tusk himself was reported to be proposing a “flextension” — an extension that could last up till April next year, but could also last a much shorter period were the U.K. to break the EU deadlock before that.
In her letter, Ms. May acknowledged that were the U.K. still fail to ratify the agreement and be prepared to leave the EU by May 23, it would be under a “legal obligation” to hold the European parliamentary elections between May 23 and 26. “The government is therefore undertaking the lawful and responsible preparations for this contingency,” she assured Mr. Tusk in her letter. “The government is determined to bring this process to a resolution quickly.”
It came as the BBC reported that Mr. Tusk was considering proposing a 12-month flexible extension that could be cut short if ratification happened before that.
Earlier this week, Ms. May adopted a new approach to Brexit, after her withdrawal agreement was defeated by MPs last week, while an effort to find a solution that a majority of MPs could rally around also failed. Ms. May is engaged in talks with Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn and has extended an “open invitation” to MPs to achieve a consensus.
The government has indicated that it is not willing to open up the text of the legal treaty itself but is ready to negotiate on the political declaration on future relations that accompanies it. Labour is pushing for this declaration to require the U.K. to remain in a customs union with the EU (ensuring tariff-free movement of goods into and out of the EU) as well as to guarantee that the U.K. would continue to match the EU’s high standards on worker and consumer rights and environmental protections.
They are also discussing the possibility of holding a confirmatory referendum. The move to talk to Labour has put Ms. May at odds with many in her party, who fear it will lead to a “softer” version of Brexit, while some in the Labour Party fear it is merely an empty gesture made by the government in an effort to force Labour to share responsibility for its (in their view) flawed vision of Brexit.
However, with regard to the extension, much uncertainty remains. Ms. May faces resistance to any form of extension within her party. While an unsuccessful party no-confidence motion in her last year means she cannot be challenged again in this way, some have suggested that if there were an extension, they would try to be as “difficult as possible”.
“We could veto any increase in the budget, obstruct the putative EU army and block [French President Emmanuel] Macron’s integrationist schemes,” suggested Jacob Rees-Mogg, a vocal Brexiteer.
Even on the EU side, there are increasing concerns about whether granting an extension would be harmful to the EU. A long extension would “risk giving the keys of the EU’s future to a Boris Johnson or a Michael Gove,” warned Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s interlocutor on Brexit, referring to the two MPs who campaigned vigorously to leave the EU, and who could push Brexit in a very different direction to Ms. May.
“For those in the EU who may be tempted to further extend the Brexit saga, I can only say, be careful what you wish for,” he added on Friday, pointing to Mr. Rees-Mogg’s comments. And while German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that “till the very last hour” Germany was determined to do everything possible to avoid a no-deal Brexit, others including French President Emmanuel Macron have signalled frustration. He has warned that the EU could not be held “hostage” to Britain’s internal Brexit battles.
An emergency meeting of the European Council is due to take place on Wednesday, April 10 at which Ms. May would need to have a clear road map to be able to persuade the remaining EU 27 leaders to back her in attempting to avoid a no-deal.
Copy of the letter