EU sick of Brexit, but likely to grant an extension
European Union chiefs are so fed up of Brexit that when they clinched a new divorce deal with Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week they did not want to entertain the need to delay Britain’s departure beyond October 31.
But once Britain sends a letter to seek an extension for the divorce - as now seems likely after Johnson’s failure to get the agreement approved in parliament on Saturday - there is very little chance that the other 27 members' states would refuse.
After a call between Johnson and European Council President Donald Tusk on Saturday evening, an EU official made clear, however, that the bloc would not rush.
“The prime minister confirmed that the letter would be sent to Tusk today,” the official said. “Tusk will on that basis start consulting EU leaders on how to react. This may take a few days.”
An EU diplomat reinforced that message: “We won’t be rushed by any request.” The bloc hopes the deal can still pass in the factious House of Commons in time to let Britain leave with a deal on October 31.
The EU would, however, need to step in should that start looking unlikely if it wants to avoid a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month.
“I can’t see them refusing,” Anand Menon, director of UK in a Changing Europe and a Brexit expert, told Reuters. “They don’t want no deal and they certainly don’t want to be blamed for it.”
EU leaders might end up agreeing any new Brexit date at a hastily convened emergency summit, possibly next weekend. Their ambassadors are due to meet in Brussels on Sunday morning.
Britain’s parliament voted in favour on Saturday of an amendment that withheld support for Johnson’s Brexit deal and as a result he is obliged, by law, to request a postponement.
The EU 27 have already agreed twice to postpone Brexit from the original deadline of March 29 this year.
Frustration in Brussels
However, frustration has mounted among them over the distraction of a process that has dragged on for three-and-a-half years since Britons voted in a referendum to leave the EU.
After the second extension they said it would be the last one, and French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most outspoken and hawkish among the 27’s leaders on the issue.
His camp stresses the cost of protracted uncertainty in terms of sapping the EU’s political capital and attention to face challenges from climate and migration to international crises, as well as economic cost for companies that have invested in contingency preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Despite French misgivings, the EU has repeatedly made clear it would not want to be seen pushing a member state out and that its absolute priority was to avoid any no-deal Brexit, especially one for which it would take the blame if it refused to postpone Brexit.
However, an extension can only be granted by unanimity among the 27 and, asked whether there was any serious risk that Macron could refuse it, another EU official said: “No.”
“If there is a chance of a deal, they will never choose no deal,” said Nick Petre, spokesman for the Renew Europe group of liberals in the European Parliament that includes Macron.
A one-month delay?
Britain’s House of Commons last month passed a law demanding the government seek a delay until the end of January 2020 to avoid an abrupt split on October 31, if a divorce deal is not approved by parliament by October 19.
It is possible that the EU 27 will grant a “technical extension” of just one month until the end of November to keep pressure on Britain to approve the deal clinched this week.
“It can still just be a technical extension, only until the end of November. And they could still get out of it if they manage to pass it before October 31,” said an EU diplomat who deals with Brexit.
Another EU diplomat said the length of an extension and conditions attached would depend on the purpose behind the request.
“If we still hope to be able to salvage this deal, we’d be looking at shorter ones,” the diplomat said. “Then, if we are looking at elections or second referendums, a longer one would most likely be needed. At this stage, it really depends on what happens in Britain in the coming hours.”
Many in Brussels believe there could be no more delays beyond mid-2020 as the bloc needs the rest of the year to prepare its new, long-term budget from 2021 and wants to know whether Britain will go on paying to the joint coffers.