British officials 'put out feelers' on delay to EU exit
Coveney to say it's time MPs end 'wishful thinking' and warns against playing into hands of hardliners
British and European officials are discussing the possibility of extending Article 50 amid fears a Brexit deal will not be completed by March 29.
Three separate EU sources confirmed that UK officials had been "putting out feelers" and "testing the waters" on an Article 50 extension, even as the government said it had no intention of asking to extend the negotiating period.
The discreet diplomatic contacts, described by one source as officials "just doing their homework", emerged as a British minister broke ranks to raise the possibility of extending the talks.
Margot James, the digital minister, admitted "we might have to extend Article 50" if Prime Minister Theresa May lost next week's Commons vote on the Brexit deal.
Downing Street said Ms James was wrong but her comment sowed suspicion among Brexiteers that ministers were trying to soften MPs for the possibility that Brexit could be delayed.
Leave-supporting Tories fear the party will be punished at the polls if the prime minister breaks her promise to take Britain out of the EU on March 29.
Senior EU diplomatic sources confirmed that despite the government's official position, UK officials were exploring the terms under which the EU might agree to extend Article 50.
"Until now this didn't come up but we're hearing it more and more," said one diplomatic source.
"We presume this is based on some conversations in Westminster, even though we are clear that the government is formally dead against it and doesn't want to do it."
Any extension to Article 50 must be unanimously agreed by all EU member states, and EU officials have hinted in the past that the UK could be granted a "technical extension" to give it time to enact legislation or complete a general election or referendum.
"We hear talk of the government forcing through legislation without scrutiny but honestly wonder how realistic that is," a second EU diplomatic source said. EU sources have indicated the limit of an extension would be July 6, when the new European Parliament first sits, but even after this, EU leaders would have to decide whether to allow no deal if the UK wanted more time.
Some regional analysts question if, when confronted with no deal, the EU might yet be prepared to go further than a mere "technical extension". Mujtaba Rahman, a Europe analyst at the Eurasia Group risk consultancy, said the EU's thinking had started to shift.
"The current deal is a good one for the EU and it won't want to throw it away unnecessarily, so the Union's position toward an extension has evolved and it is more nuanced than it was a year ago," he said.
"For some time, the expectation in Brussels has been that the impasse in the Commons would inevitably push the UK toward an extension. That's looking much more likely."
The discussions come amid rising tensions ahead of Britain's scheduled exit on March 29.
Yesterday, Tory MP Anna Soubry hit out at Brexit protesters after being called a "Nazi" by a mob outside Parliament. The pro-EU MP was interrupted while doing live interviews on Monday at Westminster in the heart of London.
She was forced to stop talking during a BBC discussion while people off-camera could be heard shouting "Soubry is a Nazi".
She told interviewer Simon McCoy: "I just think this is astonishing, this is what has happened to our country." Protestors also chanted slogans including "Liar, liar" throughout a live interview by Ms Soubry on Sky News. Meanwhile, Tánaiste Simon Coveney is set to issue a stark warning to Westminster that the time for "wishful thinking" on Brexit is over.
He is to put squabbling British politicians on notice that if "unrealistic options" aren't cast aside quickly, hard-line Brexiteers will "win out to everyone's cost, including Ireland's". Mr Coveney was expected to use a keynote speech to Irish diplomats in Dublin Castle this morning to say that time is running out to get the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement over the line.
The speech is aimed at MPs in Westminster, and he is telling them "there is no alternative 585-page agreement waiting to be dusted off".
He was also expected to say that it's "wishful thinking" to ignore the default outcome if nothing is agreed, which would be a "crash-out".
"Surely now is the time in Westminster for everyone, in government and in opposition, to cast aside unrealistic options based on promises that simply cannot be delivered. If that doesn't happen quickly... it is the hard-liners who think no price is too high to pay for their version of Brexit who will win out to everyone's cost, including Ireland's."
Mr Coveney will be joined at the conference on the Government's 'Global Ireland 2025' initiative by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas.