Brexit extension: EU says it will only allow delay if MPs vote for Theresa May's deal next week

Donald Tusk lays down ultimatum to Westminster

Jon Stone
Wednesday 20 March 2019 17:18 GMT
Donald Tusk: EU leaders could agree a short delay to Brexit but only on condition that MPs pass Theresa May's deal in House of Commons

The Brexit delay sought by Theresa May will be “conditional” on MPs voting to support her deal in parliament next week, the president of the European Council has said.

Donald Tusk told reporters in Brussels that that extension of Article 50 would only be finalised after the House of Commons backed the controversial plan, which has already been rejected twice by MPs.

“In the light of the consultations that I have conducted in the past days, I believe a short extension will be possible, but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” he said in a press statement hours before leaders gather in the EU capital for a meeting.

“The question remains open as to the duration of such an extension. Prime minister May’s proposal of the 30 June, which has its merits, creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature. Leaders will discuss this tomorrow.”

The European Council president, who represents member states collectively, suggested EU leaders could be called back to Brussels for yet another emergency summit next week in the event that one was needed. But he added that “if there is a positive vote in the House of Commons next week we can finalise and formalise the decision on the extension” without a meeting.

It is not certain that a third vote will even take place in the Commons, however, after Speaker John Bercow this week ruled the withdrawal agreement could not be brought back again under parliamentary rules. The Government has said it plans to hold a vote anyway in defiance of Mr Bercow – but it is unclear how it would be able to do this.

Mr Tusk, who spoke on the phone with Ms May this afternoon, conceded “that hope for a final success may seem frail, even illusory” but warned: “We cannot give up seeking until the very last moment a positive solution”. He said the EU had conducted itself with “patience and good will”.

The prime minister had written to the Council president at lunchtime asking him for an extension of Article 50 until 30 June. If the UK does not get an extension or revoke Article 50, it will leave the EU next Friday – with or without a deal.

A leaked diplomatic note which emerged earlier showed there are serious concerns in Brussels about Ms May’s 30 June proposal, however. The document, which was reviewed by the European Commission at its regular meeting today, says any extension would be a “binary” choice between a short extension to late May, or a long extension until at least the end of the year that would see the UK participate in European Parliament elections.

The EU is concerned about the effect a middle-length extension would have on the functioning of the EU. The note said that “any extension offered to the United Kingdom should either last until 23 May 2019 or should be significantly longer and require European elections” and that “this is the only way of protecting the functioning of the EU institutions and their ability to take decisions”.

The document, drawn up for European Commissioners, says that “any other option (as for example an extension until 30 June 2019) would entail serious legal and political risks for the European Union and would import some of the current uncertainties in the United Kingdom into the EU27”.

It adds that “any other scenario would also have direct legal and practical consequences for the election of Members to the European Parliament in 14 of our Member States”.

The main reason for the bloc’s concern is that EU member states are due to get extra MEPs in the coming European Parliament elections – with the UK’s old seats split up between the other countries. As a result, Brussels says it would need to know what the UK is doing by late April so that seats could be allocated properly ahead of the continent-wide vote.

Following the statement, European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: “The only relevant question now is if prime minister May can muster a cross-party majority by next week.”

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