British prime Minister Theresa May will ask the European Union to delay Brexit by at least three months after her plans for another vote on her twice-defeated divorce deal were thrown into crisis by a surprise intervention by the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Nearly three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, its departure is uncertain and Mrs May’s plans are in disarray. Possible outcomes still range from a long postponement, leaving with Mrs May’s deal, a disruptive exit without a deal, or even another referendum.
Just 10 days before the March 29th exit date that Mrs May set two years ago by submitting a formal "article 50" request to leave – and two days before a crucial EU summit – she was on Tuesday writing to European Council President Donald Tusk to ask for a delay, her spokesman confirmed.
It was not immediately clear how long a delay she would seek. She had warned parliament that if it did not ratify her deal, she would ask to delay Brexit beyond June 30th, a step that Brexiteers fear would endanger Brexit itself.
Other EU member states were discussing two main options: a delay of two to three months, if Mrs May persuades them she can clinch a deal at home, or much longer if she accepts that radical reworking is needed.
The BBC's political editor, Laura Kuenssberg, said the prime minister would ask for an extension until June 30th – which could give her another chance to get parliament to bless her deal – with the option of a delay of up to two years.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said the EU will need to know “the reason and the usefulness” of any UK request for a delay to Brexit before deciding whether to grant an extension.
“It is our duty to ask whether this extension would be useful because an extension will be something which would extend uncertainty and uncertainty costs,” Mr Barnier said.
He warned that the UK would need to propose “something new” to justify a lengthy extension.
Unconfirmed reports suggest that Mrs May could ask for a lengthy extension to article 50, with the option of an early break in May or June if she manages to get her withdrawal agreement through parliament.
But Mr Barnier appeared to pour cold water on this possibility, telling a reporter: “You said both short and long. “Well, it’s either one or the other, isn’t it?” He added: “My feeling is ... a longer extension needs to be linked to something new.”
In a move that added to the sense of crisis in London, speaker John Bercow ruled on Monday that Mrs May's Brexit deal had to be substantially different to be voted on again by parliament.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said a vote this week on the deal was now less likely. But ministers were studying options, and he indicated the government still planned a third vote. "This is a moment of crisis for our country," he said.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said: "I will fight until the last minute of the time to March 29th for an orderly exit. We haven't got a lot of time for that."
Her foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said: "If more time is needed, it's always better to do another round than a no-deal Brexit."
If it left this way, Britain would quit the EU's single market and customs union overnight, falling back on World Trade Organisation rules that could mean many import and export tariffs. It would face the prospect of manufacturing and financial market disruption, sharp economic contraction and border delays..
But France was more blunt, saying a no-deal exit was possible. "Grant an extension – what for? Time is not a solution, it's a method," said EU Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau. "If there is an objective and a strategy, it has to come from London."
Mr Bercow said his ruling, based on a convention dating back to 1604, did not prevent the government reshaping its proposition, or securing a vote in parliament to override his ruling. - Reuters, Press Association