The European Union agreed on Friday to London’s request for a Brexit deadline extension but set no new departure date, giving Britain’s divided parliament time to decide on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s call for a snap election.
“There was full agreement on the need for an extension,” an EU official said after ambassadors from the 27 countries staying in the bloc met to discuss postponing Britain’s exit, less than a week before the current deadline of October 31.
“Work will continue over the weekend” and envoys will meet again in Brussels on Monday or Tuesday, the person said.
UK lawmakers are expected to vote on Monday on Johnson’s demand for a December 12 vote, and the French ambassador argued that the EU should wait to see the result before it decides to “go short, to push for ratification, or long to accommodate a general election”, according to a diplomatic note.
France stood alone in arguing that it was not the right time to agree to a three-month delay, in a move that will be welcomed in Downing Street.
“Everyone wanted a decision today. But France had a problem with that and wanted to wait until Monday/Tuesday to see what happens in London,” one EU diplomat said.
A source close to French President Emmanuel Macron said: “France wants a justified and proportionate extension. However, we have nothing of the sort so far. We must show the British that it is up to them to clarify the situation and that an extension is not a given.”
The prevarication in Brussels, and Macron’s swing behind Johnson’s strategy for getting a deal passed, will leave the issue of an extension in doubt with as little as 48 hours to go before the UK is due to leave. Any delay can only be granted unanimously, and it could come as little as 60 hours before Britain’s expected departure.
EU sources said that the chances of leaders being called to a last-minute summit to decide on an extension had risen. “It has not been ruled out at all,” a source said.
The 26 other member states are understood to have argued that France was playing a dangerous game by “playing ping-pong with the UK and reacting to every twist and turn”.
“Everyone is very frustrated. They were told that a short extension ran the risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit,” one diplomat said.
“It is the French, always the French,” said a second senior diplomat. “And they never back down.”
A day after admitting that he will not meet his “do or die” deadline of October 31, Johnson said it was up to the EU to decide on an extension.
“Of course, October 31 is still possible – we could leave on October 31 – unfortunately it depends on what the EU says,” he said, adding that if opponents frustrate his bid for an election on December 12, his minority government would not engage in pointless “Brexitology” in parliament.
According to a draft document seen by Reuters ahead of Friday’s meeting, a delay was to be granted “with the view to allowing for the finalisation of the ratification” of the divorce agreement sealed with Johnson last week.
The draft text left the Brexit date blank but said the split could take place earlier if ratification was completed, an idea dubbed a flexible extension or “flextension”.
A two-tier delay was also on the cards, meaning one decision might come with two possible dates for Brexit, depending on if and when the deal is ratified.
“This extension excludes any reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement,” the draft decision said, reminding Britain it would remain a full, paying member state until it leaves and should not seek to stall EU decisions.
The EU is intent on preventing the most damaging no-deal split, but it is also tired of the intractable divorce.
A joke in that spirit was being shared among EU diplomats: “The year is 2192. The British prime minister visits Brussels to ask for an extension of the Brexit deadline. No one remembers where this tradition originated, but every year it attracts many tourists from all over the world.”
More than three years after Britons voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to be the first country to leave the European project, the future of Brexit is unclear and the country bitterly divided.
Johnson won the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party in July with a pledge to get Brexit done by October 31, but parliament’s rejection of his timetable on Tuesday means he will fail to do that.
His predecessor Theresa May resigned after parliament defeated her Brexit deal three times, forcing delays from an initial Brexit date of March 29.
Johnson told opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn he would give parliament more time to approve his Brexit deal by November 6 if lawmakers back a December election in a vote on Monday, his third attempt at forcing a snap poll.
Corbyn replied he would wait to see what the EU does on a Brexit delay before deciding which way to vote, repeating that he could only back an election when the risk of a no-deal Brexit was off the table.
It is not clear how Corbyn will respond now the EU has shelved its decision on a new Brexit date. A spokesman for Johnson said he would push ahead with plans to leave the EU if lawmakers reject a pre-Christmas election.
Ladbrokes said betting odds indicated an election in 2020.