EU keeps Britain guessing on length of Brexit lifeline

Brussels (AFP) –


EU members delayed a decision Friday on how long to postpone next week's Brexit deadline, giving British Prime Minister Boris Johnson space to push for an early general election.

Senior diplomats told AFP they would reconvene on Monday or Tuesday next week, thus perhaps fewer than 72 hours before Britain is set to break away from the bloc.

Johnson is struggling to call an election he hopes will give him a majority to pass the divorce deal he struck with EU leaders last week.

But the British opposition wants to know whether Europe will agree to delay departure before agreeing to a snap poll -- and October 31 remains the official deadline.

After what EU negotiator Michel Barnier said were "excellent discussions", European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said work among member states "will continue in coming days".

Two diplomats told AFP the ambassadors set an informal deadline of late Monday or early Tuesday to decide -- just two days before the current Brexit deadline.

Senior European diplomats who attended the meeting confirmed the 27 non-British members had agreed in principle that some kind of delay is in order.

They also agreed that their capitals could decide on its length by written procedure, rather than by holding a leaders' crisis summit in Brussels next week.

- January 31 'easiest' -

But, with France pushing for a shorter delay to keep the pressure on Westminster, and Germany and Ireland backing a three-month pause until January 31, the decision is not done.

"Depending on how things evolve in the UK, we've given ourselves until the start of next week," a senior diplomat said.

"It's clear that if a decision is taken in the UK on whether or not to hold an election -- the date of the election will weigh on the consultations," he said.

But the EU's decision has not been formally made and British MPs will have to decide on Monday whether or not to approve Johnson's demand for a general election this year.

In the meantime, Johnson has put on pause his efforts to ratify the withdrawal agreement -- after MPs rejected a bid to speed it through in just three days -- leaving Brexit in limbo.

"Take 'no deal' off the table and Labour will absolutely support an election," main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, suggesting a long delay must be guaranteed before a vote.

- 'Delay after delay' -

Johnson's Conservative cabinet colleagues, however, backed him on his demands to press on with plans for a vote regardless.

"Because of the actions of parliament, we are going to get this delay, but we will see what the EU has done in response of parliament's request," finance minister Sajid Javid told Sky News.

"We cannot keep on having delay after delay after delay."

When the ambassadors last met on Wednesday, Germany and Ireland backed postponing Britain's departure until January 31, France sought a shorter delay and others were on the fence.

"It's one thing to say we'd like to have elections, it's another to say they have been organised," France's minister for European affairs Amelie de Montchalin said Thursday.

"We're not doing political fiction, we need facts in order to make decisions," she said.

On Thursday, Johnson demanded an election on December 12 that he hopes will give him a majority to ratify the Brexit withdrawal agreement he struck with EU leaders last week.

But he needs a two-thirds majority in the current parliament in order to approve a poll and the British opposition is split, with some holding out for a second referendum on Brexit itself.

Johnson's government, meanwhile, has scrapped plans to present its new budget next month, with Javid arguing that it had been planned with the October 31 departure date in mind.