British Prime Minister Theresa May is due back in Brussels on Thursday on a last-gasp mission to beg EU leaders for more time to deliver a Brexit deal twice rejected by her own parliament.
With just eight days until the UK’s four-decade-old European adventure comes to an abrupt end, May’s frustrated European colleagues are losing faith in her ability to ratify an orderly withdrawal.
But, after she wrote to EU Council president Donald Tusk on Wednesday to ask for a three-month delay until June 30, he suggested the other 27 capitals might allow her more time to win over deeply sceptical British lawmakers.
Tusk admitted that European leaders are suffering “Brexit fatigue” and said he feared his hopes may prove “frail, even illusory” — but May nevertheless took to the airwaves to harangue MPs and to urge the British people to back her plan.
“You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with this. I agree. I am on your side,” May said, blaming lawmakers for opposing her Brexit plan and insisting she was requesting a delay until June 30 with “great personal regret”.
Lawmakers have twice resoundingly rejected May’s agreement, and a third vote the premier hoped to hold this week was cancelled by the House of Commons speaker on procedural grounds. Nevertheless, Tusk was clear that Europe wants May to try again.
“In the light of the consultations I have conducted over the past days, I believe a short extension will be possible but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” he told reporters.
On Thursday, at an awkward EU Council summit, May will have a chance to make the case outlined in her letter for a stay of Brexit execution — although European diplomats stressed that no decision will be made until next week.
The pound fell sharply against the euro during Wednesday — exactly 1,000 days on from Britain’s seismic 2016 referendum vote to split from the EU — reflecting fears that Britain could crash out without any agreement at all.
– ‘Credibility’ –
May said any postponement beyond the end of June would undermine voters’ trust.
“It is high time we made a decision,” May said in her address.
Meanwhile, the European Commission advised EU leaders that it would be preferable to either have a shorter delay to May 23 — when voting begins in European Parliament elections — or a much longer one, until at least the end of 2019.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed London’s “clear request” and said she would “make every effort” to bring about an agreement at the Brussels summit.
But her foreign minister Heiko Maas, of the junior coalition partner Social Democrats, said May’s letter “only pushes the solution further down the road”.
And in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a tough message.
“A situation in which Mrs May is unable to deliver sufficient guarantees on the credibility of her strategy at the European Council meeting would lead to the request being refused and a preference for a no deal,” he told parliament.
The British parliament has been deadlocked for months over Brexit, with MPs unable to decide how to implement the referendum result, and voters themselves are also sharply divided.
But Britain is now in crisis, facing the potentially catastrophic prospect of leaving its biggest trading partner after 46 years with no arrangements in place.
– ‘Resignation threat? –
In her letter, May said she intended to bring her deal back to the Commons “as soon as possible”, arguing that if it passed, she would need the delay to implement the treaty.
If the text is rejected a third time, a deeply divided parliament will have to decide what happens next.
“As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30,” May told lawmakers, in comments interpreted as a hint about her own future.
May’s team tried to engage senior members of the opposition, hoping to bring enough members on side to pull her deal through, and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn will also be in Brussels on Thursday for talks with EU negotiator Michel Barnier.