Donald Tusk urges UK to use Brexit breathing space wisely

Verhofstadt tells European Parliament that article 50 extension puts ‘Europe at risk’

European Council president Donald Tusk has urged the UK to use the the breathing space of its Brexit extension wisely, and said the EU remained willing to reconsider the political declaration on the future relationship "if the UK position were to evolve".

Mr Tusk and European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker were addressing a debate on last week's European Council at the plenary of the last session of the current European Parliament in Strasbourg. The council agreed to extend the UK's article 50 departure period until October 31st.

Mr Tusk was criticised by the leader of the liberal ALDE group, Guy Verhofstadt, who claimed that the six-month extension was putting “Europe at risk”. The deadline was “too near for substantial reform, too far away to prompt any action . . . I fear it will lead to continued uncertainty and indecision,” he said.

Mr Verhofstadt said that the fact that the UK would be forced to contest the European elections in May could see its mainstream parties "wiped out". That prospect meant that "the only thing that can save us is [the fear of] Nigel Farage", he warned. He urged British prime minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to "make a cross-party deal now to avoid imminent disaster".


Participation by UK MEPs in the first sessions of the new European Parliament could shift the balance in a number of key votes, notably the parliament’s own internal votes on its presidency and the important chairs of committees and delegations.

The latter are conducted under the complicated D’Hondt system of proportional allocation and could allow the conservative and Eurosceptic groups and the Socialists a greater influence than their numbers after Brexit would suggest. The losers are likely to be the centre-right EPP and the Liberals.

Rights and obligations

Mr Tusk insisted that as long as the UK remains a member of the EU it has the full rights “and obligations” of members and opposed any suggestion it should be deprived of such rights.

He reiterated that he remained convinced that the revoking of article 50 is not a “dream”. Anyway, he said, Europe “needs dreamers and dreams”.

Udo Bulman, leader of the Socialist group (S&D), welcomed the extension and the avoidance of a cliff-edge departure by the UK. He said that the extra time should be used to put the issue to voters. "Taking back control means putting it to the people," he said, "not the ideologues".

Nigel Farage boasted he would be “coming back” with a swathe of Eurosceptics – “lots and lots of us. The Brexit Party will sweep the board.” If a deal was done between now and the European elections to allow a soft Brexit , he said, it would be a betrayal, and he called for a “peaceful revolution” in the UK. “Then the Brexit Party will not win the European elections but the general election.”

Ulster Unionist MEP Jim Nicholson, speaking, he said, for the last time in the parliament after 30 years as a member, said that the central problem of the withdrawal agreement remained the backstop. He saw no solution by November.

Sinn Féin's Martina Anderson criticised the Irish Government for denying its citizens in Northern Ireland the right to vote in future post-Brexit elections – the only state, she said, to do so with its non-resident citizens.

Fine Gael's Sean Kelly insisted that a failure to reach a deal in London should lead to an "indefinite extension" of the Brexit process.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times