May vows to ‘press on’ with talks as Brexit is delayed until October 31st

British PM rejects charge that she has reneged on a promise to House of Commons

Theresa May has welcomed the extension of article 50 to October 31st, claiming that it fulfilled her key request to EU leaders because it can be terminated as soon as Britain ratifies the withdrawal agreement.

Speaking in Brussels shortly before 2am on Thursday, the prime minister said she would continue to work towards winning a majority at Westminster for her Brexit deal before Britain has to contest European Parliament elections on May 23rd.

“Further talks will also take place between the Government and the opposition to seek a way forward. I do not pretend the next few weeks will be easy or that there is a simple way to break the deadlock in parliament. But we have a duty as politicians to find a way to fulfil the democratic decision of the referendum, deliver Brexit and move our country forward. Nothing is more pressing or more vital,” she said.

Mrs May rejected the charge that by accepting a six-month extension, she had reneged on a promise she made in the House of Commons last month not to be the prime minister who delays Brexit beyond June 30th.


“The UK should have left the EU by now and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way. But the choices we now face are stark and the timetable is clear.

“So we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest,” she said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the outcome of the summit, saying it created the space and time for the UK to finally make a decision on Brexit.

Emerging shortly after 1am from a lengthy meeting of EU leaders, Mr Varadkar said: “We’re all done. The decision is there’ll be a flextension until October 31st but if they ratify the agreement before that, they can leave earlier.

“From Ireland’s point of view, it means we won’t have a no-deal Brexit on Friday,” Mr Varadkar said.

“If no-deal happens at all, it won’t happen until the end of October. But that creates a period of time for the United Kingdom to essentially come to a cross-party agreement and ratify the agreement.”

Asked if the extension was long enough, Mr Varadkar said: “I really hope so. The European Union is imperfect, we took several hours here to make a decision. There were different views, we had to bounce things around for five-six hours this evening, but we did make a decision.

“It’s three years since the referendum now, and we really think it’s time for the United Kingdom to make a decision. So we’re giving them a very long period of time now to make a decision. Really, three options for them - to revoke, and stay in the European Union, to accept the deal that’s on the table or to leave with no deal.”

The Taoiseach declined to say it was the UK’s last chance. “In fairness to Mrs May, she set out a plan. She’s in talks with the Labour Party . . . Their political system is very different,” he said.

The plan that she set out was an attempt to agree something with the Labour Party, Mr Varadkar said.

Mrs May told EU leaders, Mr Varadkar said, that the Conservative Party and the Labour Party accepted there would be no changes to the withdrawal agreement, but they would seek changes to the political declaration in the areas of workers’ rights, environmental standards and - potentially - a customs union or customs arrangement.

“So I think it was adequate. Things have changed since three weeks ago. There are cross party talks. There is a sense that they might be successful but if they’re not successful, then there is a fallback option,” he said.

“From the point of view of everyone around the table, that was adequate to prevent no deal on Friday.

“The EU is not a prison, nobody has to stay,” Mr Varadkar said. “But it’s also a home and we’re not going to kick anybody out either. Ultimately this is decision for the British people to make.”

Mr Varadkar played down fears that the UK could disrupt EU business, saying that the council meeting received "very strong" advice from the European Commission that the UK could be excluded on sensitive future matters.

He said that UK MEPs could be disruptive in the European Parliament, but many UKIP MEPs already were. “We have to be the grown-ups in the room,” he said.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times