UK Prime Minister Theresa May has asked the EU to delay the Brexit date further to 30 June, admitting that the UK will have to hold European elections and is ready to do so if it has not ratified a Brexit deal by 23 May.
In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk on Friday (5 April), the prime minister repeated her wish for the UK to “leave the European Union in an orderly way and without undue delay”.
“The government will want to agree a timetable for ratification that allows the United Kingdom to withdraw from the EU before 23 May 2019 and therefore cancel the European Parliament elections, but will continue to make responsible preparations to hold the elections should this not prove possible,” she wrote.
May’s request for an extension until 30 June is likely to be met with a frustrated reaction from EU leaders, who already rejected an identical request at a Council summit a fortnight ago on the grounds that it would interfere with the European elections.
This time, however, May conceded that if the UK has not left by 23 May, it will take part in the pan-EU ballot. But the inevitable confusion this would create around the European elections is still likely to ruffle feathers in the EU-27.
Tusk has recommended a flexible one-year extension to the Article 50 process, with the possibility of the UK leaving the bloc as soon as it can pass the withdrawal agreement.
Any extension would require unanimous agreement of the 27 EU leaders.
Several of May’s ministers have warned that a long extension will be the only thing on offer. On Thursday, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox warned that any extension offer from the EU was “likely to be a long one” with the UK likely to have to accept.
For his part, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs on Wednesday that another short-term extension would not be possible unless a deal has been struck in the House of Commons by 12 April.
The UK government has already started preparing to hold the European elections, instructing local authorities and the electoral commission to prepare polling stations and ballots. Both the Conservatives and Labour have candidates’ lists and campaign plans in place.
UK MPs have voted down by hefty majorities May’s Withdrawal Agreement three times. They then narrowly failed to agree to back any of a series of alternative Brexit options, with plans for the UK to be part of a permanent customs union with the EU, or a second referendum, coming up short by a handful of votes.
May’s apparent determination to avoid a ‘no deal’ scenario has prompted a furious reaction from many in her Conservative party, as has her decision earlier this week to open cross-party talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a bid to strike a compromise.
Ministers and Labour officials are holding a third day of talks designed to establish whether they can unite around a compromise Brexit plan under which the Withdrawal Agreement would remain unchanged, but with changes being made to the accompanying Political Declaration on future relations.
May is expected to set out the options, likely to include customs union membership, in a further letter to Corbyn on Friday. If a compromise cannot be agreed, May signalled that MPs will vote on a “small number of clear options on the future relationship” in a last-ditch bid to find a way forward.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]