UK likely to be offered Brexit extension until end of year
Britain is likely to be offered a final long extension ending on 31 December after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, failed to convince the bloc’s capitals that Theresa May has a plan to break the Brexit impasse.
A number of member states, most prominently France, along with Slovenia, Greece, Austria and Spain, remain sceptical about a lengthy extension, citing the risks to the EU of Britain behaving badly.
Barnier implored EU ministers meeting in Luxembourg to keep the pressure on MPs to back the deal by supporting May’s request for a Brexit delay only up until 30 June, a leaked diplomatic note of the debate reveals.
But, according to the note seen by the Guardian, there is instead growing support for the idea of a lengthy extension, with a Brexit delay of around nine months now looking likely, sources claimed.
None of the EU27 ruled out such a delay during the meeting of EU affairs ministers, The Guardian has learned. The most wary instead insisting on a “mechanism” to keep check on the British government’s behaviour.
The threats made by the Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg and others to disrupt the union from inside in the event of a long extension to Britain’s membership were raised in the meeting according to the leaked cable.
Barnier told the group: “We will not tolerate this”.
France’s Europe minister, Amélie de Montchalin, told her colleagues during the meeting: “[The UK] mustn’t stand in the way of any decisions that the EU would have taken without them”.
According to the note, Austria’s minister, Gernot Blümel, said that his government wanted to avoid a hard Brexit. “But let’s be honest – we have the support of our people for our tactic, which has created a pro-European mood,” he added. “We are risking our credibility if we extend again”, he said. “[Theresa May] is asking a lot of us. Therefore it is only fair we ask a decent plan and some conditions.”
Greece’s minister said: “A long extension bears risk and we don’t know who the new Tory leader might be, or want they might do. So we want clear guarantees on a long extension.”
One option that has been discussed in recent days is a requirement on the prime minister to set out in writing her intention for the UK to act in “sincere cooperation” with the bloc, and for a “weighing point” to be set up in October when Brussels would judge whether the UK was living up to its commitments.
“That might be the price for French support,” said an EU diplomat.
According to the leaked note, a number of member states told Barnier that they did not believe Labour and the Conservatives were genuinely seeking a compromise position.
Luxembourg questioned why Labour had voted down the withdrawal agreement to which it is not opposed, concluded that its main focus was forcing a general election.
In his comments during a press conference, Barnier hinted at the points he had made to the EU’s ministers during a 50 minute address on Tuesday morning, by noting that a key factor in the bloc’s thinking would be the “pressure you might want to assert” on MPs.
“The duration of an extension has got to be in line with or linked to the purpose of such an extension, and that is something I can imagine Mrs May will be telling the leaders tomorrow as well,” Barnier told reporters.
But even before Barnier spoke, Germany’s EU affairs minister had complained that “absolutely nothing has changed” in Westminster.
Michael Roth said cross-party talks had not offered any hope of an imminent Brexit breakthrough, leaving the UK facing no deal or a long extension to its EU membership.
May has claimed that the talks with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition, are evidence of a new direction being taken by the British government that could justify a short extension to the end of June.
But, before the prime minister’s meetings on Tuesday with the French president, Emmanuel Macron, in Paris, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin, Roth offered a downbeat assessment of the state of play.
“It’s groundhog day again,” he said. “Unfortunately I have to say that the conditions the European council has decided on in its last meeting have not been met. This means time will run out on 12 April.”
Roth added: “Of course the EU continues to be willing to talk, there is also a letter by the prime minister, May. We will very carefully have to look at this letter. We are finally expecting substantial steps in the right direction. So far absolutely nothing has changed.
“Of course we are also thinking about such a deadline extension, including a long extension of the deadline, but this also has to come with very strict criteria.
“For example, it cannot be that there are speculations without an obligation of the British side to also partake in the European elections. Therefore we are in a very frustrating situation and the EU has to finally also take care of issues of the future.
“We might also have to give the British side time so they can finally be clear about what they actually want. Apparently the very late talks with the British opposition have not led to any progress whatsoever either.”
France has in recent days warned that having not found a clear plan to get the Brexit deal passed in the Commons, the UK government will have chosen by default to crash out of the bloc.
The UK is due to leave by 12 April unless the British government is able to “indicate a way forward”, which it is yet to do.
“That’s why there is not exactly an unlimited willingness of the European Union to always talk about extensions as long as there is no substantial progress on the British side,” Roth told reporters in Luxembourg.
De Montchalin, who has recently replaced Nathalie Loiseau as France’s EU affairs minister, told reporters: “The UK has asked for an extension. The French position hasn’t changed. We consider this demand is neither agreed nor automatic. It’s very important this demand comes with a credible political plan which will pass during the extension.”