Britain appeared set to be offered a final long extension ending on 31 December after Donald Tusk, the European council president, said granting Theresa May her request for a shorter Brexit delay risked damaging uncertainty for businesses and citizens.
Despite a whistle-stop tour by the prime minister to Paris and Berlin, the EU’s capitals remain unconvinced that the British government has a credible plan to break the Brexit impasse in Westminster.
A number of member states, most prominently France, along with Slovenia, Austria and Spain, do remain sceptical about a lengthy extension, citing the risks to the EU of Britain behaving badly during the extra period of membership.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, had also argued during a meeting of ministers in Luxembourg that May’s request for a limited extension to 30 June would keep the pressure on MPs to back the deal.
But, according to a diplomatic note seen by the Guardian of the meeting, there is growing support for the idea of a lengthy extension, with a Brexit delay of around nine months now looking likely, sources said.
The momentum behind a lengthy extension was clear in a letter from Tusk to the EU27 leaders inviting them to Wednesday’s summit, in which he listed the reasons to reject May’s request for limited extension to 30 June.
Tusk claimed the EU’s “experience so far, as well as the deep divisions within the House of Commons, give us little reason to believe that the ratification process can be completed by the end of June”.
He instead warned that “granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates”.
“This, in turn, would almost certainly overshadow the business of the EU27 in the months ahead,” Tusk writes. “The continued uncertainty would also be bad for our businesses and citizens. Finally, if we failed to agree on any next extension, there would be a risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit.”
The Guardian has learned that none of the EU27 ruled out a delay of around nine months during the meeting of EU affairs ministers.
France believes a full year extension, with the option to leave sooner, as proposed by Tusk earlier this month would be “too long”. But even those member states most wary of prolonged delay are merely insisting on a “mechanism” to keep check on the British government’s behaviour.
A draft summit communique, obtained by The Guardian, and to be agreed by the EU27’s leaders on Wednesday, assumes in return for an extension a “commitment by the United Kingdom to act in a constructive and responsible manner throughout this unique period in accordance with the duty of sincere cooperation”.
It goes on to say the EU “expects the United Kingdom to fulfil this Treaty obligation in a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing member state”, while the length of the extension is left blank.
“To this effect, the United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union’s tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union’s objectives”, it adds in reference to the EU’s long term plans, senior appointments and budget decisions. It adds that the UK will leave on 1 June unless it has held European elections between 23-26 May.
The threat made by the Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg to disrupt the union from inside in the event of a long extension to Britain’s membership was raised in the meeting of ministers, according to a leaked cable.
Barnier told the group: “We will not tolerate this”.
France’s Europe minister, Amélie de Montchalin, told her colleagues during the meeting: “[The UK] mustn’t stand in the way of any decisions that the EU would have taken without them”.
According to the note, Austria’s minister, Gernot Blümel, said: “We are risking our credibility if we extend again. [Theresa May] is asking a lot of us. Therefore it is only fair we ask a decent plan and some conditions.”
“A long extension bears risk and we don’t know who the new Tory leader might be, or want they might do”, Cyprus’s minister said.
An option, not included in the draft communique, that has been discussed in recent days is a requirement on the prime minister to set out in writing her intention for the UK to act in “sincere cooperation” with the bloc, and for a “weighing point” to be set up in October when Brussels would judge whether the UK was living up to its commitments.
“That might be the price for French support for a long extension,” said an EU diplomat.
According to the leaked note, a number of member states told Barnier that they did not believe Labour and the Conservatives were genuinely seeking a compromise position.
Luxembourg questioned why Labour had voted down the withdrawal agreement to which it is not opposed, concluded that its main focus was forcing a general election.
The Greek minister said her government hoped to introduce a “culture of conciliation and a culture of understanding”, adding “like Portugal we remain flexible about an extension”.
“The European elections can be a positive thing for Britain for they will reintroduce an actual discussion about Europe,” the minister said.
During a press conference, Barnier hinted at the points he had made to the EU’s ministers during a 50 minute address on Tuesday morning, by noting that a key factor in the bloc’s thinking would be the “pressure you might want to assert” on MPs.
“The duration of an extension has got to be in line with or linked to the purpose of such an extension, and that is something I can imagine Mrs May will be telling the leaders tomorrow as well,” Barnier told reporters.
But even France showed signs of accepting the need for a longer extension, as May met Macron in Paris following her earlier meeting with the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin.
“We cannot keep holding repeat Brexit summits,” an Elysee source conceded. “The EU has other things to do. Only a few weeks before the European elections, the EU must show that it knows how to do other things than holding summits about Brexit.”
Before Barnier spoke, Germany’s EU affairs minister had complained that “absolutely nothing has changed” in Westminster.
Michael Roth said cross-party talks had not offered any hope of an imminent Brexit breakthrough, complaining that “apparently the very late talks with the British opposition have not led to any progress whatsoever either”.
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