Ministers from the 27 remaining countries met in Luxembourg on Tuesday morning to lay the groundwork for the leaders’ meeting in Brussels the next day. Discussions overran by an hour amid debate between the countries about the way to proceed.
“The prolongation of the Article 50 deadline is an instrument and not an objective in itself. The British side must outline a clear plan with credible political backing to justify the decision of the European Council in favour of the extension,” George Ciamba, the Romanian EU minister chairing the meeting said at a press conference afterwards.
EU presidents and prime ministers will decide on whether to grant Theresa May a Brexit extension when they meet on Wednesday, and how long it should be.
Also speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s meeting Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, placed hope in the prospect that new talks between Labour and the Government would produce a consensus in Westminster to back the withdrawal agreement.
“A new element in this very, very serious and complex context we're operating in is of course the fact that we have had cross-party discussions initiated finally with Labour by Theresa May,” Mr Barnier said.
“We all expressed our hopes and expectations in this regard … that this dialogue will conclude with a positive result which will allow us at last to have a positive majority emerge with regard to this withdrawal agreement.”
He added: “This extension has to serve a purpose; to provide more time to ensure that the political process I've described can be crowned with success and that this majority can be attained.”
The chief negotiator said that while the withdrawal agreement was not up for negotiation, his team could add elements like a customs union to the political declaration for the future relationship within “a few hours or days”.
On their way into the meeting ministers expressed various degrees of optimism about the process.
Michael Roth, German Europe minister, was among the most critical, telling reporters: “It’s groundhog day again. So far absolutely nothing has changed. A long extension has to come with very strict criteria. We don’t have a time problem, we have a decision-making problem, especially on the British side. There are clear expectations here from our side, but we will keep our hand extended.”
France's Europe minister Amélie de Montchalin said: “The UK has asked for an extension. The French position hasn't changed. We consider this demand is neither agreed nor automatic. It's very important it comes with a credible political plan which will pass during the extension.
“We want to understand what the UK needs this extension for and what is the political surroundings to have this extension. Then comes the question of the conditions; what role the UK wants to play during this extension time, how does it want to decide.”
The message was also echoed by the Netherlands. Foreign minister Stef Blok said: “It's in the Dutch interest to avoid a hard Brexit and if more time will be needed to avoid a hard Brexit we should allow for more time.
“Most important is that the UK makes clear what solution they will offer to avoid a hard Brexit.
“Until now we only have the request for an extension but we are hoping for a specific plan from the UK side of how to avoid a hard Brexit.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister and depury PM, appeared optimistic. He repeatedly said talks between Labour and the Government were "serious", adding: “I think there will be a strong view that countries need to work together to avoid a no-deal Brexit and that the current process underway in London where the Conservative party and Labour party are now talking seriously about trying to find a middle ground position, that's something I think that ministers will want to encourage.
“But they'll also want to see a clear plan in terms of how an extension can deliver the result that we all want, which is a managed and sensible Brexit with the withdrawal agreement in place.”
Talks between Labour and the Government are ongoing as of today. Labour says the government has not put any real concessions on the table. A Downing Street spokesperson said on Monday night after the failure of yet another round to find a solution that the Government was "committed to finding a way through in order to ensure we can leave the EU and deliver on the referendum".
The prime minister herself is visiting Paris and Berlin on Tuesday ahead of the summit for last minute meetings with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies