European Union leaders are warning that their Brexit patience is wearing thin and, with just two weeks to go before Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, they’re poised to grant more time for the country to do so — but likely with tough conditions attached.
The conditions may include Britain holding another Brexit referendum, if the extension needed eventually is a lengthy one, warn EU officials — despite the fact the Britain’s House of Commons voted Thursday against a re-run plebiscite, at least in the foreseeable future.
Britain’s embattled prime minister, Theresa May, will ask the EU’s 27 other national leaders on March 21 to delay Brexit until at least the end of June.
She hopes by that time to have won backing for her contentious Brexit withdrawal agreement, which has been rejected overwhelmingly by the British parliament twice, and is planning Tuesday to seek yet again House of Commons approval for a deal she spent a better part of two years negotiating in fraught and tetchy talks with the EU.
Even if she’s successful, Britain would need extra time to complete the necessary legislation to exit the bloc.
But few observers believe she’ll get the doubly-defeated deal approved by a deadlocked British parliament — that is if the house speaker allows her to bring the deal back for another try.
Under parliamentary rules a government is not meant to bring back a measure repeatedly.
It is likely the last throw of the Brexit dice for the embattled British leader, who’s been scorched by humiliation and has all but lost control of her government and ruling Conservative party, admit some her of aides. Her critics say she’s in office but not in power, and up to 14 would-be Conservative contenders are already maneuvering to replace the broken prime minister.
With parliament this week saying it does not want to leave with May’s deal but that it also doesn’t want to exit the bloc without a deal, Brexit has come to a grinding halt, prompting the exasperation of EU leaders, who in some ways are as trapped as British lawmakers and fervently want to see an end to the draining Brexit process.
But the EU’s national leaders are equally worried about Britain exiting without a deal, which would cause significant economic harm to parts of the bloc, especially to Ireland, France, Belgium and The Netherlands.
European Council President Donald Tusk Thursday said his preference was for a long delay of a year or even more and is urging EU leaders to consider that on the grounds Britain is far from a consensus on any Brexit plan and needs considerable time to shape one.
EU national leaders must unanimously approve any extension, which they will formally consider on Thursday (March 21) at a summit in Brussels. If May prevails and cudgels the British parliament into endorsing her deal, a short technical extension to allow time for Britain to complete the legislation needed to exit is unlikely to prove a problem, EU officials told VOA.
And EU national leaders are publicly indicating as much, too.
Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, told reporters “maybe we will have to meet the needs of the British authorities and the public and extend that period a little bit, maybe a little more time is needed for reflection.”
Italian and Spanish officials have also indicated they won’t block a short technical extension.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar also said the EU needs to be open to any British request and “listen attentively and be generous in our response.”
He added an extension “reduces the likelihood of a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit on March 29.”
But a lengthy extension will be more challenging, say EU officials.
EU leaders will want a clear strategy outlining what purpose the extension will serve and will want to know what would materially change — an indication that a second referendum or an election would be held or of a forthcoming change of prime minister would satisfy that requirement.
Although the EU-27 now has the upper hand, analysts say, Brussels will need to be careful not to back Theresa May into a corner. A large part of May’s party wants to bolt without a deal, eager to break free entirely of the Continent. In the long run Britain would be better off, hardline Brexiters argue, despite the immediate massive economic shock that would involve.
Brexiters fear a lengthy extension, worried that it will be used by pro-EU Remainers to sabotage Britain ever leaving. Remainers want a long delay to try to steer Britain in a gentler direction, ending with the country still closely aligned with the EU although not a member of its political institutions.
A further complexity with a lengthy extension is what to do with Britain when it comes to the European elections in May. If Britain is still an EU member it needs to field candidates for the European Parliament and centrist European politicians fear that will result in more anti-EU British members of the European Parliament being elected.
Luxembourg’s finance minister, Pierre Gramegna, doesn’t relish that prospect, saying Thursday it is “unthinkable” Britain would be allowed to delay its exit beyond the European elections.