European Council President Donald Tusk dramatically upped the Brexit stakes on Wednesday (20 March), warning the United Kingdom that the EU will only grant Theresa May’s Brexit extension request if UK lawmakers back the Withdrawal Agreement next week.
Speaking on the eve of an EU summit, Tusk said that, following a phone call with May, “a short extension will be possible but it will be conditional on a positive vote in the House of Commons.” The UK parliament has already twice rejected May’s Brexit deal and it is not clear if May will be able to sway enough opponents to get it across the line.
Tusk said the “question remains open as to the duration of such an extension. Prime Minister May’s proposal of 30 June, which has its merits, creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature”.
The statement forms the basis of the formal invitation letter sent by Tusk to EU leaders on Wednesday.
On Wednesday evening, the Press Association reported that France, Spain and Belgium were preparing to veto the UK’s request. However, diplomats from most member states have signalled that they are prepared to grant a short extension.
Speaking on Wednesday evening, May conceded that the UK would not leave the EU with a deal on 29 March, describing this as “a matter of great personal regret”. She again pinned the blame for the delay on UK MPs and insisted that she would not delay Brexit beyond 30 June.
Earlier on Wednesday, the UK prime minister formally requested a three-month extension to the Article 50 process in a letter to Tusk stating that she was “confident” that the House of Commons would back the deal which it has twice rejected.
In response, European Commission chief Jean Claude-Juncker warned that any extension should only run until 24 May to avoid the UK having to take part in the European Parliament elections.
May is due to give a statement at 8pm GMT on the state of negotiations.
Tusk also played down talk of EU leaders being called for a second summit to decide on the extension request, commenting that “If the leaders accept my recommendations…we can finalise and formalise the decision on the extension by a written procedure.”
However, in the only sentence which was later deleted from the invitation letter, he said that he “would not hesitate” to recall EU leaders if necessary.
“Even if the hope for a final success may seem frail, even illusory, and although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking – until the very last moment – a positive solution, of course without opening up the Withdrawal Agreement. We have reacted with patience and goodwill to numerous turns of events, and I am confident that, also now, we will not lack the same patience and goodwill, at this most critical point in this process,” Tusk concluded.
In response, Guy Verhofstadt, the Belgian liberal MEP who leads the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, tweeted that “the only relevant question now is if PM May can muster a cross-party majority by next week.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]