Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons in London on October 23 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/PRU
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson in the House of Commons in London on October 23 2019. Picture: AFP PHOTO/PRU

Brussels — The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, recommended on Tuesday that EU leaders postpone Britain’s departure from the bloc while its prime minister seeks approval of their divorce deal.

EU ambassadors are to meet in Brussels later on Wednesday after the British House of Commons rejected UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to set a tight three-day schedule to approve a Brexit bill this week.

This effectively destroyed London and Brussels’ hopes that a treaty for an orderly withdrawal will be ratified before October 31, Johnson’s preferred departure date — implying an extension.

Johnson told  Tusk on Wednesday that he did not want another Brexit delay, confident he could still get a deal through parliament by October 31, his political spokesperson said. “That was the message the prime minister delivered to Donald Tusk earlier this morning. It’s very clear the public wants this done ... they want Brexit done ... We’re very clear we’d like to get Brexit done by October 31.”

France said it was open to a “technical” Brexit extension of “several days” but ruled out re-opening discussions to renegotiate the deal.

Tusk said the member state leaders could agree in writing rather than holding a summit. EU ambassadors will meet on Wednesday, but a European source said an immediate decision was not expected. He also said that after Johnson’s “decision to pause the process of ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and to avoid a no-deal Brexit, I will recommend the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension”.

On Saturday, British MPs forced a reluctant Johnson to request a three-month delay until January 31 2020, and a European official confirmed that Tusk was recommending accepting this date. However, other European sources said member states might argue for a short extension after consulting with Johnson’s government to decide on the best way to help him get his withdrawal bill through.

In France, European affairs minister Amélie de Montchalin said Paris was open to a short technical extension. “At the end of the week, we will see if a purely technical extension of several days is justified for the British parliament to finish its parliamentary procedure,” she told the French Senate. “Beyond such a perspective, an extension aimed at gaining time to rediscuss the deal is excluded.” 

‘Political turbulence’

“It’s difficult to see how we get through this without a delay,” a European official told AFP.

Another European source said: “The question is the length of the extension. If it’s too short we’ll just have to come back and do it again, so that’s useless. Too long, and that’s going to lead to political turbulence in the UK.” 

Before losing the vote on a short timetable for the withdrawal act, Johnson did win broad preliminary approval for the deal, and European leaders seized on this as sign of hope.

“It’s welcome that the House of Commons voted by a clear majority in favour of legislation needed to enact Withdrawal Agreement,” Ireland Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said. “We will now await further developments from London and Brussels about next steps including a timetable for the legislation and the need for an extension.”

Before the votes, Johnson had repeatedly said that he will take Britain out of the EU on October 31, with or without a withdrawal agreement. He reached such a deal with EU leaders last week, but on Saturday was forced by parliament to send Tusk a letter requesting that Britain’s withdrawal be postponed for three months.

Such an extension would have to be unanimously approved by the other 27 EU national leaders.

AFP