Speaking at a joint press conference with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Paris, the French president gave the clearest signal from an EU leader so far that there would be conditions on an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period.
“We would support an extension request only if it was justified by a new choice of the British,” he told reporters.
“But we would in no way accept an extension without a clear objective.”
The president added: “As [chief negotiator] Michel Barnier said, we don’t need time – we need decisions.”
France has a veto on an Article 50 extension because all EU countries must unanimously agree to an extension for one to happen.
Speaking at roughly the same time in Madrid, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez warned that Theresa May would merely be “prolonging uncertainty” by requesting a short Brexit delay without a realistic plan.
“Although Spain is not going to oppose the concession of an eventual extension, it must have a certain perspective of resolution,” he said.
“Prolonging uncertainty by postponing deadlines is not a reasonable nor desirable alternative.”
Ms Merkel struck a softer tone in the French capital, telling reporters: “If the UK needs a bit more time, we won’t say no. But we want an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the EU. We regret this decision but that’s the reality.”
Theresa May offered the option of an extension to MPs on Tuesday in a bid to head off another Commons defeat.
Under the prime minister’s plan, MPs will be asked to vote again on her deal on 12 March. Should it be rejected, they will be asked to vote on 13 March on whether the UK should leave without a deal.
If both of those are rejected, there will be another vote on 14 March on an extension to Article 50, which would delay Brexit.
But Mr Macron’s suggestion that the UK would need to make a “new choice” for an extension to be granted throws a spanner in the works of Downing Street’s timeline.
Though the French president did not elaborate on what such a choice might entail, the EU has been pushing the UK to soften the terms of Brexit. Mr Macron’s statement also suggests time might be granted were the UK to decide to hold a second referendum, which Labour said it would back earlier this week.
Last week European Council president Donald Tusk said he believed an extension to Article 50 was a “rational” course of action for the UK to take, following a meeting with Theresa May. He added, however, that the prime minister still believed she could avoid an extension.
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