May faces ‘national emergency’ while EU haggles over Brexit guillotine
Britain faced warnings it was on the verge of a “national emergency” as EU leaders haggled over an ultimatum for MPs to vote for a Brexit deal or crash out of the bloc within weeks.
Unconvinced that Theresa May could win parliament’s backing for her exit deal, the EU’s other 27 leaders rejected the British prime minister’s plea for a June 30 extension at an intense Brussels summit as they took control of the Brexit timetable and narrowed the choices facing her MPs.
During a prolonged debate, EU leaders argued over the details of a counter-offer that would set a “guillotine” date for Britain to decide whether to hold European elections or leave the bloc in May, with or without a deal. Several end-dates were discussed, including May 7 and May 22 — a day before the European Parliament elections begin.
EU leaders also clashed over whether to make an extension offer conditional on MPs backing a Brexit deal or make a more flexible proposal leaving open the option of a long extension.
According to one senior diplomat briefed on the session, a frustrated Emmanuel Macron asked Mrs May: “Theresa, where are we going?”
The French president has emerged as the head of a hardline group of EU leaders who have argued that Brussels should rule out any extended delay of Britain’s exit date unless London fundamentally rethinks its Brexit policy.
But on Thursday he was challenged by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, who said the union had to do whatever it could to avoid a hard Brexit.
The two leaders clashed at a private meeting, which “nearly” erupted into a row, according to one EU diplomat. Ms Merkel told her French counterpart they would be judged harshly by history if they allowed a chaotic fracture with Britain to occur.
Mr Macron had warned that, unless the British parliament approved Mrs May’s agreement in an eleventh-hour vote next week, the UK was heading towards a “no-deal” exit from the EU on the scheduled departure date of March 29. His remarks sent sterling towards its biggest one-day fall this year, dropping 1.3 per cent to $1.3004.
Mrs May’s willingness to contemplate a no-deal exit — in spite of the government’s own analysis that it would cause serious economic damage — has caused alarm in Whitehall and in business. “She has caved in to the hardliners,” said one pro-EU person close to the UK cabinet.
When challenged by EU leaders on what would happen if she lost the vote on her deal in the House of Commons next week, Mrs May frustrated them by refusing to “speculate” on her plans.
Her allies said she would not agree to delay Brexit beyond June 30 and was ready to take Britain out of the EU without a deal if MPs continued to oppose her withdrawal agreement.
In a rare unity of forces by Britain’s business lobbyists and trade unions, the TUC and CBI called on Mrs May to consider an alternative plan, saying the UK faced a “national emergency”.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, and Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, wrote a joint letter to Mrs May calling for an urgent meeting and saying: “We cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people.”
They also called for the government to “clearly acknowledge the reckless damage no-deal would cause” and said securing an extension was essential.
While senior Tories say Mrs May will respond to a Commons rejection of her agreement by leading Britain out of the EU without a deal, others believe parliament will take control of Brexit and legislate to stop a no-deal exit. Some believe Mrs May will resign if her deal is rejected for a third time after being voted down by overwhelming majorities in January and again this month.
Mrs May also faces a backlash from MPs for criticising parliament, which has twice rejected her Brexit deal by overwhelming majorities.
EU leaders such as Mr Macron have found themselves incongruously aligned with hardline Eurosceptics in Mrs May’s own cabinet, who have argued that anything more than a short, technical extension would be a betrayal of the 2016 EU referendum.
“We can’t pretend that the British didn’t vote to leave nearly three years ago,” the French president said. “It would be disrespectful to British sovereignty.” Although he did not rule out a longer extension, Mr Macron said it would require “a profound political change” in London.
Meanwhile, an online petition calling on the UK government to revoke Article 50 had reached more than 1m signatures by Thursday evening, crashing the government’s petition website.
But a Number 10 spokesperson said: “We have said probably 12,000 times . . . and [the prime minister] has probably said thousands of times herself that is something she is not prepared to do.”
Additional reporting by Victor Mallet and Rochelle Toplensky in Brussels and Guy Chazan in Berlin