EU leaders have moved the Brexit cliff-edge back until April 12 in a move that gives an embattled Theresa May a tight window to secure MPs’ backing for her deal at a third attempt or plot another course.
As the UK faced domestic warnings that it was on the verge of a no-deal exit and a “national emergency”, the remaining 27 EU member states agreed to postpone the March 29 Brexit day, removing a threat of an imminent chaotic exit.
The EU27 demanded that Mrs May either seal the proposed withdrawal deal next week or “indicate a way forward” by April 12. A chastened Mrs May emerged from the meeting promising to redouble efforts to secure MPs’ backing for her stricken deal.
The EU27 response after hours of fraught talks at a Brussels summit falls short of meeting Mrs May’s request to simply push back the Brexit date from March 29 to June 30. One participant in the discussions said it “protected the EU but gave May a fighting chance”.
The prime minister said: “What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner.”
Mrs May had spent Wednesday criticising MPs for failing to support her deal and refusing to countenance a long delay to Brexit, but by Thursday night her tone had changed markedly.
She said that if MPs refused to endorse her deal next week she would “work with the House on how to proceed”; she did not rule out seeking a longer Brexit extension and British participation in European elections if a new approach was needed.
Although Mrs May said she believed “it would be wrong” for Britain to take part in elections to the Strasbourg parliament in May, she did not exclude it as a possibility. However Downing St said a no-deal exit was “still on the table”.
The prolonged EU27 discussions highlighted differences within the bloc over whether to make an extension offer conditional on MPs backing a Brexit deal, or devise a more flexible proposal leaving open the option of a long extension.
The EU27 said the Brexit date would be shifted from March 29 to May 22 if the House of Commons in London approved the withdrawal agreement next week. If, however, parliament does not back the deal, the UK would have only until April 12 to suggest another course — which would then need to be signed off by EU27 leaders.
The April 12 date is significant because it is the last day that British ministers can issue an order under UK law to take part in European parliamentary elections in late May.
Donald Tusk, European Council president, said the arrangement agreed by the EU27 kept various possibilities in play — including a long extension to the Brexit process.
“Until that date [April 12], all options will remain open and the cliff-edge date will be delayed. The UK government will still have a choice between a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking Article 50,” he told a news conference.
“The 12th of April is a key date in terms of the UK deciding whether to hold European Parliament elections. If it has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible.”
Unconvinced that Theresa May could win parliament’s backing for her exit deal, the EU’s other 27 leaders had discussed various possible exit dates.
Emmanuel Macron, France’s president, said: “It’s a real political and democratic crisis. But this crisis is a British one. It’s now up to the British to end the ambiguities.”
The French president emerged as the head of a hardline group of EU leaders arguing that Brussels should rule out any extended delay of Britain’s exit date unless London fundamentally rethinks its Brexit policy.
But on Thursday he was challenged by Angela Merkel, German chancellor, who said the union had to do whatever it could to avoid a hard Brexit. The two leaders clashed at a private meeting, which “nearly” erupted into a row, according to one EU diplomat. Ms Merkel told her French counterpart they would be judged harshly by history if they allowed a chaotic fracture with Britain to occur.
Mr Macron had warned that, unless the British parliament approved Mrs May’s agreement in an eleventh-hour vote next week, the UK was heading towards a “no-deal” exit from the EU on the scheduled departure date of March 29. His remarks sent sterling towards its biggest one-day fall this year, dropping 1.3 per cent to $1.3004 in the trading day.
Mrs May’s willingness to contemplate a no-deal exit — in spite of the government’s own analysis that it would cause serious economic damage — has caused alarm in Whitehall and in business. “She has caved in to the hardliners,” said one pro-EU person close to the UK cabinet.
When challenged by EU leaders on what would happen if she lost the vote on her deal in the House of Commons next week, Mrs May frustrated them by refusing to “speculate” on her plans.
Her allies said she would not agree to delay Brexit beyond June 30 and was ready to take Britain out of the EU without a deal if MPs continued to oppose her withdrawal agreement.
In a rare unity of forces by Britain’s business lobbyists and trade unions, the TUC and CBI called on Mrs May to consider an alternative plan, saying the UK faced a “national emergency”.
Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, and Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI, wrote a joint letter to Mrs May calling for an urgent meeting and saying: “We cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people.”
Meanwhile, an online petition calling on the UK government to revoke Article 50 had reached more than 2m signatures by Thursday evening, crashing the government’s petition website.