EU leaders debate future of Brexit in Theresa May's absence

Donald Tusk, right, president of the European Council, meets with Prime Minister Theresa May and Tim Barrow, second left, the permanent representative of the United Kingdom to the European Union, ahead of the European Leaders' summit in Brussels. Picture by Donald Tusk/Twitter/Press Association
Andrew Woodcock, Press Association

The future of Brexit was being decided behind closed doors in Brussels, as leaders of the 27 remaining EU states wrangled over a possible postponement in Theresa May's absence.

The prime minister's plea for a three-month extension to the negotiation process to June 30 to allow her time to prepare for an orderly departure appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Instead, the EU27 appear determined to ensure the UK leaves before European Parliament elections on May 23-26, unless Mrs May relents and allows Britain to join in.

European Council president Donald Tusk tabled proposals for the date of Brexit to be put off from March 29 to May 22, on the condition that MPs approve Mrs May's withdrawal deal when it comes before the Commons for a third time.

But the draft communique setting out the plan was torn up and rewritten as leaders argued over alternative dates.

A new proposal backed by France and Belgium would allow the UK to remain until May 7 whether or not MPs vote Mrs May's deal through.

The unconditional offer would take the pressure off the PM to stage a third "meaningful vote" next week, and would remove the need for an emergency Brussels summit next Thursday if she failed.

Under this plan, a longer extension would be available only if the UK declares by April 11 – the final date allowed by electoral law – that it will take part in the Euro-elections.

The so-called "flextension" plan would pile pressure on MPs who are resisting agreeing an exit deal, while keeping open the possibility of a longer delay if the UK decides to adopt a new approach.

It would also ensure that the cut-off date came before a May 9 summit in Romania intended to mark the "renewal" of the European project.

European Parliament president Antonio Tajan told the EU27 that MEPs want April 11 to be the final cut-off for any extension.

But Germany seemed keen to avoid ratcheting up pressure on Mrs May, with Chancellor Angela Merkel promising work "until the last hour" to ensure that Britain does not leave without a deal.

Behind-the-scenes photos showed EU officials gathered round laptops in the corridors working on new versions of the communique.

Mrs May made the case for a June 30 extension to the Article 30 withdrawal process in a 90-minute presentation to the leaders of the other 27 states.

The prime minister was reportedly pressed on what she will do if MPs reject her deal for a third time – having voted it down by a margin of 230 in January and 149 last week – but did not commit herself to a Plan B.

She then left the EU27 to continue their discussions in her absence in a meeting which dragged for two hours beyond its scheduled conclusion before they broke for dinner.

The PM had been due to join them for the meal of lentil terrine with langoustines followed by roast duckling, but was forced to dine alone as they continued to debate Brexit as they ate.

The communique also suggested the EU would formally adopt two documents agreed by Mrs May with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg last week, with the intention of reassuring MPs that the controversial backstop will not be permanent.

As she arrived in Brussels for what was slated to be the UK's final EU summit as a member of the bloc, the prime minister said she "sincerely hopes" Britain will be able to leave with a deal.

But several leaders warned that if MPs turn down her Withdrawal Agreement for a third time, the UK could be heading for a no-deal Brexit on March 29.

French president Emmanuel Macron said only a short "technical" extension was on offer and if MPs reject the agreement "it will guide everybody to a no-deal for sure".

Describing the UK as being in "political crisis", Mr Macron said: "There needs to be a profound political change if there is to be an extension which is anything other than technical."

Luxembourg's prime minister Xavier Bettel said: "At the moment, there are more non-options on the table than options... I sometimes have the feeling that we are in the waiting room, a bit like Waiting for Godot. But Godot never came so I hope this time they will come."

Mrs May was coming under intense pressure after a poor reception from some of her own MPs to her Downing Street statement on Wednesday, when she blamed MPs for failing to implement the result of the 2016 EU referendum and told frustrated voters "I am on your side".

But Number 10 defended her comments, saying they had been intended as a "message to the public" to explain why she had decided to seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.

And she put the spotlight back on MPs as she arrived in Brussels, saying: "What is important is that Parliament delivers on the result of the referendum and that we deliver Brexit for the British people. I sincerely hope that we can do that with a deal."

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt sought to defend the prime minister's statement, saying she was under "extraordinary pressure" and feels a "sense of frustration" but is "absolutely determined to deliver what people voted for."

Jeremy Corbyn held what he described as "very constructive discussions" in Brussels with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr, which he said had focused on the means to prevent a no-deal Brexit next Friday.

The Labour leader twice declined to rule out the option of halting Brexit by revoking the Article 50 letter informing Brussels of Britain's intention to quit, though a party spokesman later said revocation was "not in any way necessary".

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