Tuesday 23 April 2019

'Brexit Day' pushed into either April or May as UK to be granted two-tier extension

  • EU leaders agreed that the latest date possible is May 22
  • If divorce deal not approved by MPs, Brexit delay until April 12
  • Theresa May: 'I do not believe we should be revoking Article 50'
  • 'A no-deal Brexit, if it happens, will be a British choice' – Taoiseach warns
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker embraces Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May as they attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 21, 2019. Aris Oikonomou/Pool via REUTERS
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker embraces Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May as they attend a European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium March 21, 2019. Aris Oikonomou/Pool via REUTERS

John Downing in Brussels

After a day of tough wrangling EU leaders have agreed on a plan to delay Brexit - postponing the risk of a no-deal crash-out by the UK which had loomed in just seven days.

The chairman of a Brexit EU leaders’ summit, Donald Tusk, confirmed that the process can be delayed until 22 May – provided the UK parliament next week approves the British withdrawal deal.

If the Westminster parliament fails to do this, the EU will back a shorter delay until 12 April.  This again poses the risk of a no-deal ending as the UK would then be challenged to finds ways of getting the deal through or to "indicate a way forward."

President Tusk said British Prime Minister, Theresa May, had agreed the EU leaders’ findings.  Going into this tense day-long meeting the UK was due to leave the EU in eight days, with or without a deal, if no extension was agreed.

Despite reports of tensions through a day of frank talking, President Tusk said the contacts were “positive and constructive.” 

But the plain-speaking former Polish Prime Minister also made it clear that he was not backing down on previous claims about UK Brexiteers deserving “a special place in hell” for their lack of planning for the project.

President Tusk was asked directly whether he believed the UK MPs still opposing a Brexit deal might also find space in hell.

“According to our Pope hell is still empty … it means there is still a lot of spaces,”  President Tusk said.

EU Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, did acknowledge tensions .

“The clock is ticking not just on Brexit, the clock is also ticking in other areas,” President Jean-Claude Juncker said, indicating a certain frustration that the EU has had to spend so much time on Britain's departure.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets with President of the European Council Donald Tusk in Dublin, Ireland March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar meets with President of the European Council Donald Tusk in Dublin, Ireland March 19, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

After hours of disputing over specific dates about Brexit extensions, the EU leaders finally came up with a formula to deal with the legal requirement to hold European Parliament elections in member states from May 23 to May 26 and publicise these elections in good time. 

Indications early today were that this formula went back to the original Brexit extension date of May 22 – provided the UK parliament ratifies Theresa May’s draft EU-UK divorce deal next week.

If that third parliamentary ratification bid fails next week, then Brexit would kick in on the new date of April 12 next. 

This risks being a no-deal Brexit unless the UK requests a longer delay – but a longer delay would require big changes in London’s Brexit approach, perhaps a general election or even a second referendum.

Speaking at a Brussels press conference, Mrs May said: "Firstly I welcome the Council's approval of the legally-binding assurances in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop, which I negotiated with President Juncker last week.

"This should give extra assurance to Parliament that in the unlikely event that the backstop is ever used it will only be temporary and that the UK and EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020."

After a petition to cancel Brexit reached more than two million signatures, the UK Prime Minister said: "I do not believe we should be revoking Article 50."

Earlier, the Taoiseach insisted that the UK has the power at all times to avoid a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Leo Varadkar said that if the UK does end up leaving the EU without an exit deal – it will be entirely by their own choice.

“We all need to bear in mind that nobody wants a no-deal here. But no-deal, if it happens, will be a British choice,” he emphasised.

The Taoiseach said it was the UK who chose Brexit in the first place and it was they who fixed the March 29 deadline.

They needed nobody’s permission to revoke the Article 50 exit process – and resume EU membership right up to the deadline, he stressed.

Mr Varadkar attended a preparatory summit meeting with eight other heads of government belonging to the European People’s Party before the full EU summit.

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