Brexit: EU leaders open door to long delay as May fails to set out plan B

EU leaders have rejected Theresa May’s assurances that she can get her Brexit deal passed this week and opened the door to a long delay to the UK’s departure, offering pro-EU MPs a two-week window to mobilise for an alternative.

In marathon talks in Brussels, EU leaders agreed a ‘flexible’ extension to Article 50 that will keep the UK in the EU until 22 May if the deal is passed, but giving until 12 April for the UK to ask for more time if MPs reject it again.

After telling MPs, the country and 27 European heads of government that she wouldn’t tolerate the UK staying in the EU beyond the end of June, fellow leaders ignored her and kept open the possibility of putting Brexit off until the end of the year. 
With the leaders of Germany, Ireland and the Netherlands appealing for flexibility, the EU eased the risk of a no-deal Brexit by removing the requirement that an extension is tied to a vote on the Prime Minister’s deal in all cases.

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It gives pro-EU forces valuable time to mobilise and seek to soften the Brexit deal or attempt to force an election or a second EU referendum.

Theresa May has been in discussion with the EU over a delay to Brexit. Picture: Aris Oikonomou/AFP/Getty Images

A conference dinner to discuss relations with China was taken over by debate on the UK’s exit. Mrs May had been due to take part, but was shut out so EU leaders could continue talks in private.

EU leaders rejected the Prime Minister’s request to extend Article 50 until 30 June, insisting the UK cannot remain beyond EU elections on 23 May. After grilling the Prime Minister for an hour and a half, EU leaders ripped up their draft proposals and began five hours of private talks.

Mrs May was asked to explain why she thought she would get her deal through the House of Commons at the third attempt.

EU sources described the Prime Minister as “tight lipped” and “evasive”, and said her “answers weren’t always crystal clear”.

The Prime Minister was unable to tell EU leaders what she would do in the event that MPs rejected her deal again.

Earlier, the Prime Minister refused to rule out taking the UK out of the EU without a deal when asked the same question by journalists.

“What is important is that Parliament delivers on the result of the referendum and that we deliver Brexit for the British people,” Mrs May said on arrival at the summit.

“I sincerely hope that we can do that with a deal. I am working on ensuring that Parliament can agree a deal so that we can leave in an orderly way.

“What matters is that we deliver on the vote of the British people.

“What matters is that we recognise that Brexit is the decision of the British people. We need to deliver on that.”

The Prime Minister added: “We’re nearly three years on from the original vote. It is now time for Parliament to decide.”

There was also tough rhetoric at the start of the summit from EU leaders, particularly French president Emmanuel Macron, who said the UK faced no deal “for sure” in the wake of another defeat for the government unless there was “profound political change”.

EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker quipped: “I didn’t even know I had this much patience.”

It came as a parliamentary petition calling on the government to revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit attracted support at the fastest rate ever seen, with well over 1.5 million people signing it within 24 hours.

At its peak there were 2,000 people adding their names every minute, crashing the Westminster Parliament’s website.

At Westminster, MPs on all sides voiced anger at the Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday night that blamed Parliament for the continuing Brexit deadlock.

But Commons Speaker John Bercow told MPs who complained about the Prime Minister’s statement: “None of you is a traitor”.

There were signs of further division within the Conservative Party, with reports that Chief Whip Julian Smith told MPs that he thought the Prime Minister’s statement was “appalling”.

“She just won’t listen to us,” Mr Smith is said to have told a Tory colleague.

The Ministry of Defence announced yesterday it had activated a nuclear bunker beneath Whitehall to act as the co-ordination centre for 3,500 military staff on standby for a no-deal Brexit.

The UK will move into a “very high readiness mode” on Monday under its no-deal preparedness plan, dubbed Operation Yellowhammer.