British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday (8 April) started a last-minute flurry of European diplomacy that includes visits to Paris and Berlin as she prepares for a make-or-break Brexit summit.
Still struggling to get her EU divorce deal through parliament, May is hoping European leaders will agree on Wednesday to delay Brexit for a second time to stop Britain crashing out of the bloc two days later.
After putting her request in a letter to European Council president Donald Tusk last week, she spoke by telephone on Monday with him and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
May is also to visit German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday, in what her spokeswoman said was an attempt to set out “the rationale” for a further short delay.
Faced with political deadlock in London, the EU agreed last month to postpone Brexit from 29 March to 12 April, and May will ask at a special summit on Wednesday for it to be pushed back again to 30 June.
All other 27 EU leaders must agree and most seem ready to accept the idea of another delay to avoid a harmful “no deal” Brexit, but likely for a much longer period than Britain has asked for.
In anticipation of this, May’s government on Monday reluctantly laid the legal order needed to hold European Parliament elections on 23 May.
But she is hoping that EU leaders might agree to a flexible delay proposed by Tusk, whereby Britain could leave earlier if it agrees a divorce deal, and never hold the elections.
“It does not make these elections inevitable as leaving the EU before the date of election automatically removes our obligation to take part,” a spokeswoman said.
European leaders have also asked May to come up with a reason for a delay, with France in particular warning that it does not want simply to prolong the uncertainty.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who also spoke to May on Monday, said it was “crucial to know when and on what basis the UK will ratify the withdrawal agreement”.
Spoke to @theresa_may. At #EUCO we will discuss UK request for further extension Brexit-day. Crucial to know when and on what basis UK will ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. A positive decision hinges also on assurances from UK on sincere cooperation.
— Mark Rutte (@MinPres) April 8, 2019
EU leaders seek assurances that while staying in the EU until Brexit is pushed through, the UK would not disrupt the EU work, and in particular would not complicate the discussions from the EU long-term budget for 2021-2027.
EXC: A draft memo prepared ahead of this week’s EU summit says the UK would be held to enhanced “sincere cooperation” terms in the event of a 9- or 12-month extension. https://t.co/N6T2BveKRE
— BuzzFeed UK (@BuzzFeedUK) April 8, 2019
— Joseph Muscat (@JosephMuscat_JM) April 8, 2019
Hard Brexit prohibited by law?
Adding pressure on the government, British lawmakers rushed through legislation late on Monday forcing May to request a delay and seeking to prevent a no-deal Brexit.
The law has been rushed through both chambers of parliament over the past week and was opposed by the government, which has said it could limit its room for negotiation with the European Union.
Under the terms of the law, the government will now have to put forward a motion in parliament on Tuesday setting out its extension request which will then be voted on by MPs.
MPs will be allowed to vote on this and make their own suggestions as to the length of the delay.
It allows the government to seek any extension from 22 May onwards. Prime Minister Theresa May has asked for a delay until 30 June, but ultimately this is up to EU leaders and it could be longer.
The law does not actually prevent a no-deal Brexit when the deadline for Britain runs out on Friday, as that is the legal default if Britain and the EU cannot agree on an extension at the summit.
Britain could also choose to stop the entire Brexit process by revoking Article 50, the formal procedure for member states that want to leave.