Members of the European parliamentary group that includes French president Emmanuel Macron’s party want a five-year delay to Brexit, it has emerged, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson was told the EU is still waiting on detailed proposals to break the deadlock over the Irish border.
Scottish Liberal Democrat MEP Sheila Ritchie said there was support within the Renew group, which includes the Lib Dems and Mr Macron’s En Marche party, for an extension to the Article 50 period until the end of the of the new European Parliament mandate in 2024.
In his first meeting with the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Johnson was told “proposals have not yet been made” for alternative arrangements to the backstop that can prevent additional checks along the Irish border, with four days until a 30-day target for a breakthrough agreed with German Chancellor Angela Merkel elapses.
Following the talks, Mr Johnson abandoned a joint press conference in Luxembourg with the country’s prime minister, Xavier Bettel, after anti-Brexit protesters threatened to drown out the event. In an embarrassing scene for the UK Prime Minister, Mr Bettel addressed the media on his own, next to an empty podium.
Mr Johnson went into yesterday’s talks insisting he would not request an extension to the UK’s 31 October EU exit date, despite a legal obligation to do so if no deal has been agreed with Brussels in the next month.
However, with the EU saying it is the UK’s responsibility to put forward alternative plans for the Irish border in order to make progress in talks, MEPs will gather in Strasbourg tomorrow to vote on endorsing a Brexit delay.
Ms Ritchie said there was support in the Renew group – the third largest in the European Parliament – and beyond for a much longer extension than the three-month minimum set out in legislation passed by MPs to block a no-deal Brexit.
“If we ask for an extension, we will be given longer than three months – I think six months minimum,” she told The Scotsman. “As you will know, French sources are mooting a two-year extension.
“My view is that it would be preferable if the extension was to the end of the current parliament, on the basis that we stop bugging Brussels every six months, we take proper time to sort out what we want, and can get our Parliament to approve, and go back to them.
“That would stop the constant cliff-edge negotiation or bluffing and reintroduce some stability for all parties. That view has some support in the Renew Europe Group and the wider European Parliament.”
Over a working lunch in Luxembourg, Mr Juncker reminded the Prime Minister it was “the UK’s responsibility to come forward with legally operational solutions” to the issues around the Irish border. In a statement, the EU Commission said “proposals have not yet been made”.
A Downing Street spokesman said that talks between British and EU officials would intensify further and “would soon take place on a daily basis”.
Amid speculation that a deal could be accompanied by a longer post-Brexit transition period, Mr Johnson also said after the talks that EU regulations would cease to apply at the end of December 2020, limiting the time available to negotiate the UK’s future trade relationship with Brussels.
Officials from the UK and Luxembourg governments sought to pin the blame on each other after the joint press conference turned into a solo address by Mr Bettel, while Mr Johnson was jeered as he left.
Referring to the protesters – British citizens living in Luxembourg – Mr Bettel said: “Our people need to know what is going to happen to them in six weeks’ time. They need clarity, they need certainty and they need stability.
“You can’t hold their future hostage for party political gains.”
Gesturing to the empty podium where Mr Johnson should have been, the Luxembourg prime minister added: “Now it’s on Mr Johnson – he holds the future of all UK citizens and every EU citizen living in the UK in his hands.
“It’s his responsibility. Your people, our people, count on you but the clock is ticking. Use your time wisely.”
Mr Johnson decided only to give a statement to a small group of journalists at the nearby residence of the British ambassador.
A Downing Street source was quoted saying the Prime Minister offered to hold a press conference indoors but his hosts declined, while Luxembourg officials said there was no room that could hold the assembled press.