Just weeks from mayhem as EU sets ultimatum for UK
- Threat of a no-deal Brexit remains very much alive
- European leaders growing increasingly frustrated as political chaos in Britain raises risk of no deal
- Chancellor Merkel said if there was a no-deal Brexit there would have to be a hard Border in Ireland
The threat of a no-deal Brexit remains very much alive after the EU’s superpowers wrangled over setting a point of no return for British Prime Minister Theresa May.
The UK’s exit from the European Union will not now happen in seven days’ time after a two-tier delay was eventually agreed.
Mrs May now has until May 22 to plan an orderly Brexit if she can finally get support for her deal next week.
However, should the House of Commons reject it for a third time the UK would only have until April 12 to decide whether to crash out or begin preparations for holding European Parliament elections.
Mrs May was shut out of a meeting of EU leaders last night as they rowed over how to stave off a cliff-edge scenario.
Germany’s Angela Merkel argued for flexibility while French President Emmanuel Macron took a hard-line stance.
During a private meeting, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Mrs May that it is now the UK’s responsibility to end the uncertainty.
Speaking to German journalists, Chancellor Merkel said if there was a no-deal Brexit there would have to be a hard Border in Ireland. “We’re trying to avoid that,” she said.
Ms Merkel urged other leaders to proceed "carefully" and work "until the last moment" to secure an orderly Brexit.
"Everyone must be and is aware that this is an event of historic significance, and so we must proceed carefully," she said.
But a growing intolerance of a chaotic UK political system was evident from many EU leaders, with French President Emmanuel Macron saying if UK MPs vote 'no' to the Withdrawal Agreement again "it will guide everybody to a No Deal for sure. This is it."
Planning for a no-deal scenario is continuing in Dublin but many unanswered questions remain.
It is still not clear how much financial support the EU will supply for the agricultural sector in the event that devastating tariffs are applied on beef and other products.
The Irish Government is now 'game planning' how to deal with the fallout of an "instant shock to the system".
There are still no answers for how an open Border will be maintained other than an assumption there will be difficult talks in Brussels shortly after the UK falls off the cliff.
Ireland will argue that Mrs May must agree to regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU in order to maintain frictionless trade on this island. Mr Varadkar told reporters that if the UK does end up leaving the EU without an exit deal, it will be entirely by its 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 said.
Mrs May put a brave face on her predicament, saying she was still working on getting her parliament's approval.
Officials said ministers were still talking with pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party and the 10 Democratic Unionist Party MPs who prop up her government.
"A short extension would give parliament the time to make a final choice that delivers on the result of the referendum," Mrs May said.
She faced more than an hour of questioning from prime ministers from other EU countries who wanted clarity on her plans. They made it clear that her request for a delay until June 30 was never going to be acceptable because European Parliament elections must by law happen in the last week of May.
Mrs May was to have been a guest at the EU leaders' summit dinner last night but that invitation was cancelled when disagreement over various extension dates persisted.
Over the course of the evening, France and Belgium are understood to have argued for the UK to be forced out of the EU before a May 9 summit in Romania, to celebrate the "renewal" of Europe.
This led to the option of an unconditional extension to April 12, the final date on which the UK can opt to take part in European Parliament elections. It will then be up to Westminster to decide to either crash out or take part in those elections in order to get a longer extension.
Mrs May wants to avoid a longer extension at all costs as it raises the chances of her being bounced into either a second referendum or even a general election.
The news for the prime minister wasn't much better back in London, where MPs were still furiously arguing over the next steps. Remain-supporting ministers were reported to have told Mrs May they are prepared to resign unless she offers a free vote on a backbench move to prevent the UK leaving without a deal.
A cross-party group of MPs is today expected to table an amendment to force her to accept a longer extension to Article 50 if her deal fails.
The amendment, to be put to the vote next week, will mean that parliament, rather than the prime minister, will take control if Mrs May's deal is again defeated in the House of Commons.
There was particular anger over the prime minster's televised address to the public on Wednesday night, during which she blamed MPs for the Brexit chaos. One of the ministers was quoted as saying: "The level of anger is off the scale. Her public statement was appalling.
"She has performed a complete U-turn by requesting a short extension."
However, others who support Brexit are urging the prime minister to push ahead without a deal.
Two cabinet ministers said that the only way forward for the prime minister was to embrace No Deal and to crash out of Europe.