BRUSSELS – The U.K.’s exit from the European Union looks set to be delayed by as long as a year — a blow for Theresa May that risks a destabilizing backlash at home.
European Council President Donald Tusk rejected May’s request for a brief postponement to the U.K.’s membership, saying it would create a “rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates.”
Leaders were to finalize the length of the delay to Brexit at a summit on Wednesday evening. Tusk wanted them to agree to an extension of up to a year. Diplomats from member states said the debate now was between December and next March for the new departure date.
Draft conclusions show EU leaders were planning to offer Britain an early exit option from the extension in case a solution to the domestic deadlock turns up.
After months of uncertainty and knife-edge votes in the British Parliament, the prospect of a lengthy extension is good news for business, which wanted to avoid a cliff-edge departure at all costs.
But the long delay is another political defeat for May, who had promised repeatedly to take the United Kingdom out of the EU by March 29.
May’s ruling Conservative Party has almost run out of patience with her leadership. Rival candidates to replace her are already engaged in barely concealed campaigning. With a long delay locked in, and the risk of an imminent no-deal departure averted, May’s Tory critics could decide they have no reason to hold back from trying to force her out. Pro-Brexit Tories will be furious at a long delay.
The EU was discussing the conditions that it would attach to the extension, with some countries more hard-line than others. France wanted the U.K. to have its decision-making powers curtailed, with one French official saying an exiting member shouldn’t be able to weigh in on decisions such as the EU budget. France also wanted regular checks to ensure Britain is sticking to its commitments of “sincere cooperation,” according to an EU official.
But the EU has no legal way of curtailing Britain’s voting rights, so it will have to rely on the incentive of a future trade deal to make sure the country behaves reasonably, according to a person familiar with discussions at a meeting of the bloc’s envoys on Tuesday. Tusk, who tends to take a friendlier line toward the U.K., reminded leaders that Britain remained a member with “full rights and obligations.”
Tusk also had a warning to those who might be tempted to gloat at the U.K.’s failure to leave, three years after voters decided to pull the country out of the trading bloc in a referendum.
“Neither side should be allowed to feel humiliated at any stage in this difficult process,” he said.
May, who has been humiliated at summits in the past, will come to Wednesday’s meeting with little to show her fellow leaders since she last saw them on March 21. After her Brexit deal was rejected three times by a deeply divided Parliament, she invited the opposition Labour Party in for talks to find a new way forward. But while the government put a positive spin on the cross-party talks on Tuesday, Labour said May’s team had not moved enough.
“We have yet to see the clear shift in the government’s position that is needed to secure a compromise agreement,” the U.K.’s main opposition party said in a statement.
Still, there were hints that the government was willing to rub out some of its red lines and offer Labour one of its key demands: a customs union.
One person familiar with the situation said that is where talks were headed, and Justice Secretary David Gauke described what sounded like a customs union in all but name as the “common ground” between the two parties. The government is reluctant to say so at least in public because of the strong opposition among May’s euroskeptic Conservatives to remaining inside the EU’s trading regime.
If May can get a breakthrough on staying in the customs union, the EU would celebrate because the bloc wants to maintain close ties. It is even holding out hope Britain will change its mind altogether and cancel Brexit.
Tusk reminded EU leaders that revoking the whole process is still an option.
It is a clear line in the draft summit conclusions, too: “The United Kingdom has a right to revoke its notification at any time.”
Among pro-EU Britons, there is rising hope that Brexit can be stopped. With one Brexit day gone and another likely to follow, the government has lost control of the timetable.
This week the government started preparing to take part in elections for the European Parliament in late May — acknowledgement that Britain likely won’t have left the bloc by then, and may not leave anytime soon.
Support is growing for the idea that any Brexit deal agreed by Parliament should be put to public vote in a “confirmatory referendum,” with the other option being to stay in the EU. The proposal is backed by Labour and other opposition parties, plus some of May’s Conservatives.
The government has ruled out holding another referendum, saying voters in 2016 made their decision to leave. But with divisions in both Parliament and in May’s Cabinet, handing the decision back to the people could be seen as the only way forward.
If a second referendum is held, the demographic shift in Britain over the past three years could tip the scales in favor of remaining, Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell said on Wednesday.
Nearly 300,000 British people live in Spain, many of whom are pensioners living in coastal regions, while the Spanish economy depends heavily on tourism with Britons being the most numerous foreign visitors.
Borrell said another referendum does not guarantee a different outcome. But a rise in the number of eligible young voters — who tended to vote to remain in the EU — and a fall in the number of older voters, who were more likely to choose Brexit, could tip the balance.
“It’s true that, with young people in favor of remaining and older people leaving, just through the passing of these three years, with the demographic dynamics as they are, I’m sure the result would be different,” Borrell told Telecinco TV.
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