The European Union expects U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May to be forced to request a three-month delay to Brexit, two EU officials said.
Discussions between the two sides suggest May will ask for an extension to the two-year negotiating period if the British Parliament backs the Brexit deal but it isn’t signed off until an EU summit on March 21-22. That is emerging as the EU’s current plan.
The EU sees this as a “technical extension” to give British Parliament time to pass necessary legislation related to its departure from the bloc. Anything longer than three months would put the U.K. under pressure to take part in European elections on May 23-26, something that both sides are keen to avoid.
May is racing against the clock to change a controversial part of her deal, known as the ” backstop,” in a way that would be acceptable to both the U.K. Parliament and the EU. However, with just five weeks to go until the U.K.’s scheduled departure from the EU and talks at an impasse, ministers and lawmakers in her own party are threatening to vote against her next week to give Parliament control of the process.
The Backstop, Temporarily
The prime minister has repeatedly spoken out against a delay, saying she wants to take the U.K. out of the EU as scheduled at the end of March. She’s never completely ruled it out, however. Any postponement would have to be requested by the U.K. and accepted by all the remaining 27 EU governments.
EU officials say the three-month extension would happen under their most optimistic scenario. The risk remains that the U.K. could leave the bloc March 29 without a deal. Alternatively, May could be forced to contemplate a longer delay if she can’t get backing for the agreement, according to one official.
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond issued another veiled threat Thursday to quit the government if the U.K. ends up hurtling into a no-deal Brexit, while 100 moderate lawmakers in May’s Tory Party signed a letter, warning they’d vote against her to force her to delay Brexit and take no deal off the table, according to the Telegraph.
The prime minister was also reported to have been put on notice by four cabinet ministers that they’re prepared to vote for a motion to effectively prevent a no-deal departure, according to the Daily Mail.
U.K. and EU negotiators are continuing talks in Brussels to find a legal guarantee that the backstop arrangement preventing a hard Irish border, contained in the divorce deal, would apply only temporarily.
The EU signaled Thursday that talks between Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier didn’t reach a breakthrough. May needs at least some proof of progress by next week, when members of Parliament are threatening to take control of the Brexit process.
In their letter, the 100 lawmakers said they were considering backing a move coordinated by the Labour Party’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Oliver Letwin to force a delay to Brexit if there isn’t an agreement. They are expected to put forward an amendment to May’s motion in an attempt to extend Britain’s EU membership beyond the end of March.
In another day of fast-moving developments:
- A U.K. official played down the chances of a revised deal being agreed in time for next week after Hammond said it could be put to Parliament in days
- May tried to prevent ministers rebelling against her next week and met with two of her lawmakers who have threatened to quit the Tory party
- Sterling weakened and volatility jumped
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