European Union leaders will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year to find a way through its domestic deadlock, the chair of next week’s EU summit said on Thursday.
“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,” European Council President Donald Tusk said, referring to the 27 other national leaders who will meet Prime Minister Theresa May next Thursday.
A senior EU official said Tusk believed Britain would, if May fails to avoid a third parliamentary defeat next week for the Brexit deal, she has negotiated with Brussels, need at least a year and possibly much longer to find a national consensus on how – and indeed whether – it wants to quit the bloc.
Such an extension, which would depend on May lodging such a request, would require Britain to elect members of the European Parliament when all states hold votes on May 23-26, the senior official said. It would require unanimous support among the 27 other member states, whose positions are so far unclear.
In the run-up to the two-day quarterly summit, Tusk will travel to meet leaders including, on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and, on Tuesday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
A number of leading EU figures have been calling for the bloc to refuse any extension beyond the May elections, or at the latest beyond July 2 when the new EU legislature convenes. Macron has voiced doubts about a longer extension, while Merkel has appeared more open to giving Britain time.
Tusk, however, while hoping May can win lawmakers’ support for her Brexit deal before the summit, believes a short extension would achieve little and is urging leaders not to close down options to give Britain more time. That could include holding a general election or a new referendum on EU membership.
May has said she could seek an extension to June 30 if lawmakers back her deal next week. But she would seek a much longer delay rather than leave without a deal.
EU discussion of a very long extension to the two-year deadline could bolster May’s tactic of using that as a threat to persuade hardline Brexit supporters to back her deal rather than risk Britain not leaving the EU at all.
EU officials say many in Brussels and in national capitals are in two minds about delaying Brexit. Many feel the process is distracting the bloc from more pressing business and its May elections. But none relish the risk that Britain might end up leaving chaotically without a deal.