EU targets Brexit extension of up to a year

But delay to Article 50 could come with some strict conditions attached

Theresa May and other EU leaders at last year's disasterous Salzburg summit
(Image credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

The UK is likely to be granted a final Brexit extension until the end of the year, after several EU leaders stepped in rule out a short stop-gap while also warning any delay would come with strict conditions attached.

With the UK set to crash out of the EU without a deal on Friday, Theresa May embarked on a last-ditch whistlestop tour of European capitals to drum up support for an extension.

Yesterday she met German Chancellor Angela Merkel before flying to Paris for make-or-break talks with French President Emmanuel Macron.

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“It’s a painfully obvious symbol — just in case you needed one — of where the power in this relationship lies,” says Politico. “May knows she needs both leaders on board ahead of tomorrow night’s crunch European Council summit in Brussels, where EU27 leaders will make a final decision on the length and terms of any delay”.

Adam Sage in The Times says Macron “has played the bad cop throughout the Brexit negotiations, and is doing so again, making thinly veiled threats to veto Theresa May’s request for another extension to Article 50”.

Angered that technocratic arguments about backstops and customs unions are distracting from his reforming agenda for the EU, Macron could use today’s summit as a chance to play to his domestic base.

CNN says “Brexit complacency in London is about to collide with Brexit frustration in Brussels”, meaning an automatic extension should not be taken as a given.

Nevertheless, Sage says Macron “would be reluctant to veto May’s request if other countries fail to back him. They believe he is unlikely to provoke a crisis with Dublin, and say his hard line is designed in part to increase the pressure on the British government and parliament to find a way forward”.

With most expecting EU leaders to back away from the nuclear option of refusing an extension and letting the UK crash out with no deal on Friday, it means a longer delay is now the most likely option.

Britain is likely to be offered a final long extension ending on 31 December, The Guardian says, “after the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, failed to convince the bloc’s capitals that Theresa May has a plan to break the Brexit impasse”.

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A so-called “flextension” could see the UK exit early if a deal was agreed a majority of the Commons before time, although Germany’s foreign minister said any delay would come with “very strict criteria” attached.

BBC Brussels reporter Adam Fleming reports that the EU’s General Affairs Council in Luxembourg discussed a series of conditions such as UK participation in May’s European Parliament elections, no re-opening of the withdrawal agreement and how to guarantee the UK’s pledge of “sincere co-operation” in ongoing EU business.

Yesterday, a spokesperson for Macron’s office went further, stating that if Britain did delay its exit, it should not take part in EU budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU executive, the Commission.

Of primary concern among EU leaders is the threat made by the senior Brexiteers to disrupt the European Union from inside in the event of a long extension to Britain’s membership in which the UK is forced to take part in European elections.

To counteract this, BuzzFeed’s Europe Editor Alberto Nardelli reports the flextension element of the deal should cut both ways.

Britain would indeed be able to terminate the agreement by passing a Brexit deal, but Brussels would also be able to cut it short if it feels Britain is intentionally disrupting EU processes, such as setting the next seven-year budget.

Politico says “this reflects deep anxiety in some EU capitals that an imaginary future British prime minister — let’s call him, oooh, Joris Bohnson — might choose to sabotage key decisions while Britain remains a member”.

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There are also reports the EU could include a commitment by the UK to sign up to some kind of post-Brexit customs union as a pre-requisite to any extension.

This would represent a softer form of Brexit favoured by Labour, but would be unpalatable to many in the Conservative Party.

In a leaked letter obtained by the Daily Telegraph, Liam Fox has told Tory MPs that a customs union is the “worst of both worlds” and will leave Britain unable to set its own trade policy.

The International Trade Secretary said that the UK will itself be “traded” by the EU as it sells access to British markets as part of future deals after Brexit.

The Telegraph says “the strength of his intervention suggests that Dr Fox would be unwilling to stay in Cabinet if the Prime Minister was to pursue a customs union with the EU”, with several other senior Brexiteers likely to follow him.

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