The Irish government has said it would not “stand in the way” if the UK asked to extend the Article 50 negotiating period, following reports that British officials have sounded out the possibility with their counterparts in Brussels.
The UK is said to be looking behind the scenes at the possibility of delaying the Brexit date amid uncertainty about how the Brexit deal could get through parliament.
Speaking in Dublin, Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said: “If it is the case that in some point in the future the British government seeks an extension of Article 50, that will have to have EU approval, but that is not something we would stand in the way of.”
The French government also left the door open to an extension, with its Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau telling reporters in Brussels: “I don’t work on hypotheticals. The current situation is complex enough. It has not been asked about by the British authorities.”
German foreign minister Heiko Maas struck a similar tone, telling journalists: “I wouldn’t really want to think about the possibility of extending Article 50 here and now. I don’t think this is what we ought to focus on today.”
The government has been emphatic that it does not want to extend Article 50, but one minister, Margot James, said for the first time that “we might have to extend Article 50” if the prime minister loses next week’s parliamentary vote on the deal.
Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay said on Tuesday morning: “I can be very clear that the government’s policy is to leave on 29 March.”
The UK government is currently seeking further ”reassurances” about the Brexit deal from the EU in an attempt to boost the document’s apparently slim chances of getting through parliament.
The EU has repeatedly ruled out making any actual changes to the agreement, but there have been suggestion in Brussels that the bloc could send the UK a letter offering such reassurances.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said on Tuesday that he was “happy to give” these. France’s Ms Loiseau, however, told reporters that the EU had “repeatedly said” it did not want the backstop to come into effect, but that ”these are political assurances but there is nothing more that we can do”.
The Daily Telegraph newspaper reported on Tuesday that UK officials have been “putting out feelers” and “testing the waters” on an extension – despite it not being government policy.
Without an extension, the UK is set to leave the bloc on 29 March 2019. If Theresa May’s Brexit deal cannot pass parliament, the default will be that the UK leaves without a deal, which is expected to cause a major economic crisis.
The European Court of Justice has however ruled that the UK can unilaterally revoke Article 50 if it wants, effectively cancelling Brexit. An extension, which is separate from revocation, requires the unanimous approval of the other 27 EU countries.
Though most MPs in parliament do not want a no-deal Brexit, some Brexiteers in the Conservative Party are now campaigning for one to happen.
Theresa May has said that “no deal is better than a bad deal”, but insists her deal is a good deal – despite both the public and MPs across all parties having a very low opinion of it.
The PM is due to speak to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on the telephone this week as the debate on her deal kicks off in the Commons. The EU has confirmed there are no meetings taking place between negotiators because it considers the deal finalised.
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