European leaders were grudgingly preparing to postpone Brexit on Tuesday, after Prime Minister Theresa May made last-ditch visits to Paris and Berlin to beg for more time.
British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and French President Emmanuel Macron pose prior to a meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris on April 9, 2019. [Photo: AFP/Martin Bureau]
May asked to be given until June 30 to arrange Britain's orderly departure, but EU leaders fear that won't be long enough and are now expected to offer her up to a year.
"There are times when you need to give time time," EU Council president Donald Tusk tweeted, as he issued invitations to an emergency EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday, just days before Britain's latest departure date.
Summit host Tusk said in his invitation letter that the evidence of recent months gives EU leaders "little reason to believe" that British lawmakers will ratify the Brexit withdrawal treaty before May's preferred June 30 departure.
"One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year, as beyond that date we will need to decide unanimously on some key European projects," he said.
Tusk's suggestion does not bind the other EU leaders to accept the extension plan when they meet on Wednesday, but his ideas chimed with what diplomatic sources were suggesting as May made her latest tour of key EU capitals.
Some members, led by France, are sceptical of allowing too long a delay that would see British candidates competing in EU parliamentary elections next month and possibly lead to disruption of future deeper EU reform.
But others -- notably Germany and Britain's close neighbour Ireland -- are more fearful that if May runs out of time then a dramatic "no deal" Brexit would do more harm in the long run.
On Tuesday, after flying to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, May visited Paris, where an aide to President Emmanuel Macron said France was open to solutions.
"We've never been closed to the idea of finding an alternative solution to 'no deal' within certain limits and not at any price," the aide said, on condition of anonymity.
Discussions in Brussels are to focus on the length of the delay -- the French aide said a 12-month extension "seems too long" -- and arrangements to limit Britain's influence within the EU during this time.
"There would be a transition period for the United Kingdom as an intermediary member, which is present and applying the rules, but not taking part in decision-making," the aide said.
"There would need to be clear commitments and then a mechanism for monitoring them."
EU members are keen to ensure a semi-detached Britain does not seek leverage in Brexit talks by playing a spoiling role on issues such as choosing the next head of the European Commission or setting the next multi-year budget for the EU.
Briefing conservative German lawmakers after she hosted May, Merkel said the option of a Brexit deadline in early 2020 would be discussed at the EU summit, according to a source.
- Extra time -
May is hoping the extra time, if granted by EU leaders, will enable her to finally get a divorce deal through parliament.
British MPs have rejected a deal May negotiated with the EU three times, but the PM is now in talks with the opposition Labour party to try break the deadlock.
These discussions are moving slowly, and EU negotiator Michel Barnier said May must explain what another postponement would achieve.
"The length of the extension must be linked to the purpose -- what it's for -- and that depends on what Mrs May will say to European leaders tomorrow," he said, after meeting EU ministers in Luxembourg.
A "no deal" -- in which Britain crashes out of the EU -- is still a possibility.
The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday that Britain risks a serious shock if it leaves the EU without an agreement.
- Delay conditions -
Ahead of the main EU summit, Belgium will host a meeting of the EU members most exposed to the dangers of a no-deal Brexit, such as France and the Netherlands.
EU ministers no longer hide their irritation at the turmoil in London, where MPs cannot agree on how to leave the EU almost three years after the referendum vote for Brexit.
"We are in a very, very frustrating situation here," said Germany's Europe minister Michael Roth as he arrived in Luxembourg.
May had requested only a short delay to avoid having to take part in European Parliament elections, which begin on May 23, but a long postponement would mean Britain participating.
May's chances of ratifying the withdrawal agreement she signed in Brussels in November last year rely on either rebel MPs in her Conservative party and her Northern Irish allies backing her deal at the fourth time of asking -- or a compromise with the opposition.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday he was still waiting for signs of compromise from May and talks have been suspended until the summit in Brussels.
His top team met Tuesday with some of May's senior ministers, including leading Brexit supporter Michael Gove and her more pro-European finance minister Philip Hammond.