Brexit delay: EU council president Donald Tusk open to 'long extension' of Article 50

EU leaders will consider extension at a summit next week

Jon Stone
Thursday 14 March 2019 10:09 GMT
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The president of the European Council has said he is open to a “long” delay to Brexit if the UK needs time to rethink its strategy to leaving the bloc.

Hours ahead of a parliamentary vote on whether the UK should seek an Article 50 extension Donald Tusk said he would encourage EU member states to back a delay if the UK needed time to “build consensus” around a new approach.

The comments come after repeated failed attempts by Theresa May to pass her Brexit deal and a slew of government defeats on how to resolve the political crisis.

“During my consultations ahead of European Council, I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it,” Mr Tusk said on Thursday morning.

The Government on Wednesday proposed a short extension to the Brexit deadline to 30 June, to buy it time to pass the necessary legislation for exit. Such an extension would likely be required even if MPs back Ms May’s Brexit deal in a third meaningful vote next week.

Any extension needs the unanimous consent of EU member states, and some are more positive about a delay than others. French president Emmanuel Macron has said he would veto and extension to Article 50 that was not based on a “a new choice of the British” and which had “a clear objective”.

The EU leaders will consider the situation at a regular meeting of the European Council in Brussels, which is scheduled for Thursday and Friday next week.

Mr Tusk is not the first EU figure to speak of a longer extension: last month Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar said he would rather see a "long extension" than the UK leave without a deal, suggesting that political problems caused by one would be "a small complication relative" to the UK crashing out.

A longer extension could also raise the hopes of second referendum campaigners. Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš spoke to Theresa May at the weekend to tell her to hold another vote, and to support Remain in it.

One complicating factor for any significant extension is that the UK would, according to EU treaties, have to participate in European Parliament elections scheduled for May if is still in the bloc. Though the Electoral Commission has made contingency plans for this possibility, it would be disruptive to both the UK and EU sides.

Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator yesterday questioned the point of an extension, telling MEPs in the European Parliament: “Why would we extend these discussions? The discussion on Article 50, that is done and dusted. We have the withdrawal agreement, it is there. That is the question asked and we are waiting for the answer to that.”

The idea of a long delay is very unpopular with most Brexiteers, and any such plan could have repercussions in Westminster, which is already braced for a third meaningful vote next week. Though few expect the prime minister to win the division, there is already talk that there might be a fourth vote on the cards if the margin of defeat is significantly reduced in the third.

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