German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Chancellery in Berlin, April 9 2019. Picture: OMER MESSINGER/GETTY IMAGES
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets British Prime Minister Theresa May at the Chancellery in Berlin, April 9 2019. Picture: OMER MESSINGER/GETTY IMAGES

Berlin/Paris — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday met Angela Merkel, the European Union's most powerful leader, to seek support for a new Brexit delay while her ministers tried to break the deadlock in London at crisis talks with the opposition Labour Party.

More than a week after the UK was originally supposed to have left the EU, the weakest British prime minister in a generation has said Brexit might never happen as she battles to get a divorce deal ratified by a divided parliament.

With little sign of a resolution in London, May dashed to Berlin to seek support for her request to delay Brexit a second time, from April 12 to June 30. She was due to meet French President Emmanuel Macron later on.

May met Merkel at her riverside Chancellery, a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate, where former US president Ronald Reagan in 1987 urged Mikhail Gorbachev to "Tear down this wall!" — the barrier that had divided West and East Berlin since 1961.

"The leaders discussed the UK’s request for an extension of article 50 to June 30, with the option to bring this forward if a deal is ratified earlier," Downing Street said. "The leaders agreed on the importance of ensuring Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union."

What's the plan? 

May and Merkel exchanged kisses and Merkel waved farewell as May left for Paris to meet Macron at the Elysee Palace.

On the eve of an emergency EU summit in Brussels, chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc was ready to grant a delay, but that the duration "has got to be in line with the purpose of any such extension".

"Any extension should serve a purpose. The length should be proportional to the objective. Our objective is an orderly withdrawal," Barnier said in Luxembourg.

"'No-deal' will never be the EU's decision. In order to avoid 'no-deal', the UK needs to agree to a deal," Barnier said.

EU leaders, fatigued by the three-year Brexit crisis, have repeatedly refused to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement that May agreed in November. Barnier repeated that, though he held open the option of agreeing much closer post-Brexit ties.

The pound, which has seesawed so much on Brexit news that some investors have stepped away from the sterling market, rose and then dipped on speculation Merkel could offer May a better deal. Germany denied that.

The 2016 referendum revealed a UK divided over much more than EU membership, and has sparked impassioned debate about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and what it means to be British.

Yet nothing is resolved, and many opponents of Brexit say the whole divorce is at risk, especially if there is a long delay.

Customs union? 

Unable to convince enough of her own Conservatives of the merits of her deal to get it passed, May is courting socialist Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party wants to keep Britain more closely tied to the bloc after Brexit.

Labour's demands include keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU, something that is hard to reconcile with May's desire for Britain to have an independent trade policy, and potentially a second referendum on any deal.

Asked before heading to the talks whether the government had shown any willingness to countenance a customs union, John McDonnell, its finance policy chief, said: "Not yet, not even changes in language that I detect, but we'll see what comes out this afternoon."

The EU has been clear that it would accept a softer Brexit, but the idea is anathema to eurosceptics in May's party who have helped to defeat her divorce deal three times this year.

EU ministers discussed their conditions for any long delay, which include Britain holding European Parliament elections in May and committing to "sincere co-operation", or not undermining EU reforms and institutions, should it stay a member for longer.

Meanwhile in London, MPs  were due to debate May's Brexit delay proposal.

Without an extension, Britain is due to leave the EU at 22:00 GMT on Friday, with no transition arrangements to cushion the economic shock.

Reuters