Brexit: EU looks likely to offer UK extension to end of year

Friday crash-out likely to be averted but EU is sceptical about prospects of breakthrough

UK prime minister Theresa May arrives for an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP

UK prime minister Theresa May arrives for an EU summit in Brussels. Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP


EU leaders were on Wednesday night set to grant Theresa May an extension to the Brexit negotiating process, with observers of the debate at the emergency EU summit in Brussels predicting it could continue until the end of this year.

The debate on the duration went on late into the night, with most countries reportedly favouring a long extension. France, however, appeared to be holding out.

The UK is not now expected to leave the EU on Friday evening, but leaders remain unconvinced that a no-deal departure is ruled out in the medium term.

The UK prime minister appeared before leaders of the 27 remaining EU states to make substantially the case she had made in her letter to European Council president Donald Tusk last week.

She insisted that any extension would have to allow the UK to leave as soon as agreement was reached in the House of Commons on the withdrawal agreement. Speaking earlier to Tory MPs, she said her own departure would also not happen until then.

“What is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify a withdrawal agreement,” she told journalists, making clear that she was not wedded to her June 30th departure date.

European elections

Mrs May hopes to finalise a deal before European elections on May 23rd, allowing her to cancel them in the UK. Leaders were adamant that, if the UK is still a member after that date and has not participated in the elections, the UK will leave the union with a no-deal on June 1st.

Mrs May insisted to sceptical leaders that talks with the Labour Party are going “very well”.

In a bid to encourage those discussions, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar floated the idea of a new customs union involving the EU and the UK, which would give the UK a say in new trade deals – interpreted as an attempt to get around the objection that the UK would have no say in decision-making if it stayed in the existing EU customs union.

“I think if the UK were to decide to stay in a customs union, we would be able to develop something sui generis, so that they wouldn’t have no say, they would have a say in future trade deals and a level playing field around labour rights and environmental rights and so on,” Mr Varadkar told journalists before the meeting began.

Disruptive presence

Mrs May, responding to concerns – particularly from French president Emmanuel Macron – that the UK could be disruptive to EU decision-making if it remained a member for long, reiterated assurances that the UK would act in a spirit of “sincere co-operation”.

The French were looking for stronger assurances of “good behaviour”, specifically a promise not to wield vetoes in the ongoing multiannual budget discussions and appointments to top jobs. But others were confident vetoes could be circumvented if used, a position reiterated in the draft conclusions, which stressed the right of the 27 to meet together as 27.

Mr Varadkar said that conditions that restricted a member state’s rights were not legally enforceable.

The debate on the duration of the extension, which took place over leaders’ working dinner that lasted late into the night, strongly favoured closure in December 2019. Mr Macron, however, strongly urged an October date.