EU wrangles over Brexit delay as 'no-deal' looms
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European Union leaders wrangled on Thursday over what kind of Brexit delay to offer Britain as their hopes faded that Prime Minister Theresa May can win over her own parliament to ensure an orderly withdrawal.
They grilled May for over an hour at the start of a Brussels summit, notably on how she saw her chances of winning lawmakers' backing for a treaty that they have twice rejected. If she fails and nothing changes, Britain will lurch out of the bloc into legal limbo at 11pm London time on March 29.
May repeated to leaders her public statements that she could get her deal through parliament next week, diplomats said. But she had no answers when asked about the risk of failure.
"The session with May was not good in terms of the atmosphere," said one person familiar with the talks. "The other leaders lost any hope that she can get the deal passed."
A British source agreed that EU leaders had asked a lot of questions and described the mood as "OK".
A draft communique seen by Reuters before the talks would have given Britain until May 22 to leave -- but only if May won the parliamentary vote next week. The extra time is needed to complete legislation before ushering in a transition period to
at least the end of next year, during which little would change.
However, once May left the room, leaders launched into hours of talks that ran into dinner, considering several possibilities if she fails to get the deal she struck last year with the EU ratified in time.
Possible new deadlines included May 7 or Dec. 31 -- though the latter only if Britain agreed by April 11 to take part in late May's EU elections.
May had asked for a June 30 extension to give time to pass necessary laws. But the EU wants Britain out before Europeans vote for a new EU parliament on May 23-26, assuming it will not hold its own vote. An even tighter end-date of May 7 would see Britain out before EU leaders meet in Sibiu, Romania, on May 8-9
for a long-planned summit to chart their post-Brexit future.
French President Emmanuel Macron has taken 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 the kind of anti-EU nationalism that is on the rise across Europe before the EU election.
Voicing more clearly the fears of business that a no-deal Brexit as soon as next Friday would hurt economies across the continent, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was arguing for caution, though diplomats said many leaders now saw a British departure, deal or no deal, by June at the very latest.
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."
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.
If May does win her vote, there is little problem in a short extension. The leaders had all but ruled out a short extension if she lost, but on Thursday evening there was renewed focus on the possibility that a delay of a few weeks beyond March 29 might be desirable, even if there was no prospect of a deal.
Diplomats said some of the harder brinkmanship from the continent should be seen partly as intended to pressure British members of parliament to back May's deal or face chaos. "But there is a real risk of an accidental hard Brexit," one warned.
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.
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.
The small Northern Irish DUP, which gives May's government a majority in parliament, said it was no closer to backing her agreement, its Brexit spokesman said. Hardline eurosceptics in her own Conservative party also say they could never approve a deal that, according to them, would trap Britain in the EU's orbit indefinitely.
British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was also in Brussels, speaking to EU officials about his alternative plan for Brexit, which he says could be negotiated during an extension and pass through parliament.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar summed up the situation in London, with no little understatement, as "somewhat chaotic".