Donald Tusk is to appeal to the EU’s leaders to be open to a long Brexit delay to allow the UK to rethink its goals in the negotiations.
In what appears to be a shift in the EU’s red lines, the European council president suggested a lengthy prolongation could be granted simply to give Westminster time to recalibrate.
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Read moreOfficials have until now insisted that only the triggering of a general election or second referendum could justify delaying Brexit beyond 29 March by more than a few months.
But in an intervention on Thursday morning, Tusk tweeted: “During my consultations ahead of [the leaders’ summit next week], I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
The move by Tusk will be seen by some as an attempt to help Theresa Mayscare Brexiters into supporting her deal or face a prolonged extra period of EU membership during which the risk of a softer Brexit or second referendum would rise.
But it also reflects the concern that a short extension of a few months would not resolve any of the issues in Westminster and merely wire-in a no-deal scenario this summer.
MPs will vote on Thursday evening on whether to request an extension until 30 June to allow the necessary legislation to be passed should May’s deal finally be ratified in the coming days.
The motion is amendable, and the prime minister has warned Brexiters that a longer extension would likely be in play should her deal be rejected again at a likely third vote by 20 March.
The 27 heads of state and government are not likeminded on the issue of an extension but would need to come to a unanimous view when they meet at a summit in Brussels on 21 and 22 March.
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Read moreDelays of between a few weeks to 21 months have been mooted with the Irish Tánaiste, Simon Coveney, being the latest on Thursday to suggest that such a lengthy delay could be helpful despite the complications.
“If you have a long extension of Article 50, that opens up the debate in a much broader way to the overall approach that the United Kingdom takes to Brexit. That may facilitate a fundamental rethink, it may not, we just don’t know,” Coveney said.
“If you have a long extension of, say 21 months to the end of 2020 - whatever the period would be - then Britain has a legal entitlement to have representation in the European parliament.”
But a number of EU capitals have concerns that a long delay would be used by Eurosceptics in the European elections to claim that the bloc was keeping the UK trapped.
Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian prime minister, who is the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, tweeted: “Under no circumstances an extension in the dark! Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European council to agree on a prolongation. Even the motion tabled for this evening by the UK government recognises this.”
The prospect of a lengthy delay has been made more palatable after the UK’s advocate general in the European court of justice, Eleanor Sharpston, described claims that the European elections in May would be an “insuperable obstacle” to a lengthy extension as “oversimplified and fallacious”.
The prime minister, after yet another defeat in parliament, had told MPs in the Commons on Wednesday night that a long extension would likely require the election of British MEPs in May.
But Sharpston said there were legal measures the EU could take to avoid such an undesirable outcome, and that there was precedence from when Croatia joined the EU.
She said: “One way of ensuring continuing UK representation in the European parliament during an article 50 extension might therefore be for the UK to agree with the EU just to extend the mandates of the UK MEPs who have already been democratically elected and who have been sitting in the current European parliament.
“Another possible solution might be to revert to the [old parliamentary assembly] practice of sending nominated MPs from the UK, rather than directly elected MEPs, to participate in the European parliament during that period.”
Sharpston, who insisted she was commenting in a personal capacity, said: “No doubt other mechanisms could be envisaged also. What would be necessary would be to ensure that the EU27 could go ahead and elect a new European parliament as scheduled, and to arrange for the British MEPs to sit in that new EP as additional members on a temporary ‘Brexit-limited’ basis.”
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Read moreThe Commons supported a motion on Wednesday night ruling out a no-deal Brexit “in any circumstances”, leading the European commission to warn that a cliff edge remained the legal default unless a deal was sealed.
That statement reflected the wish to keep the pressure on MPs to back May’s deal but also the growing frustration in Brussels at the chaos in Westminster. “When [EU diplomats] look at how the sausages are made, some wonder whether they want to continue trading with the sausage factory,” one diplomat said.
But elsewhere in Europe, the vote was welcomed. Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, described the rejection of no deal as a “signal of reason” from London. “The House of Commons has shown that the majority does not want no deal,” he said. “The no-deal [Brexit] is in nobody’s interest, we have made that clear again and again.”