European Union leaders staved off the threat of the U.K. crashing out of the bloc without a deal next Friday by giving Theresa May an extra two weeks to work out what to do.
At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, the leaders told May that if U.K. lawmakers don’t endorse her Brexit deal next week, she’ll have until April 12 to decide whether to leave without an agreement or request a much longer extension. The decision removes the immediate possibility of a no-deal Brexit in seven days’ time.
It also gives May a powerful threat to issue to pro-Brexit hardliners in her party: Back the deal or risk being trapped in the EU for much longer. May said she’ll put the unpopular accord back to parliament next week.
The pound rose 0.4 percent against the dollar on Friday after falling as much as 1.5 percent during Thursday trading.
More than seven hours of discussion began with May delivering her most extensive pitch yet to the 27 remaining leaders before she was asked to leave the room while they thrashed out their response.
"The cliff edge will be delayed," EU President Donald Tusk said after May accepted the proposal. "I was really sad before our meeting, now I’m much more optimistic."
But in private, EU leaders weren’t so optimistic that May will be able to pull it off next week.
French President Emmanuel Macron told his counterparts that he thought there was a 10 percent chance of the deal passing, then after hearing from May he decided it was 5 percent, according to a person familiar with the meeting. Tusk replied: I think that’s a bit optimistic, the person said.
If May manages to pass a deal which has already suffered two thumping defeats in the House of Commons, the EU will let Britain remain in the bloc until May 22 to complete the formalities. If not, she’ll have to decide whether to seek a longer extension, perhaps until the end of the year, or leave without a deal.
"What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner," May said at a press briefing around midnight. "Tomorrow morning, I will be returning to the U.K. and working hard to build support for getting the deal through."
It was a pivot in May’s strategy. A day earlier she had wielded the risk of a no-deal Brexit to try to get lawmakers onside and attacked politicians for standing in her way. The rhetoric went down so badly she came close to apologizing for it after the summit. Early on Friday she didn’t mention the alternative of no-deal at all, emphasizing instead that she wants to leave in an orderly fashion.
Leaders were still not convinced that May knows how to get the agreement through Parliament so decided to take the threat of an immediate no-deal exit out of her hands, officials said. The framework they settled on allows time for a new plan to emerge should May lose the vote and then resign, one official said.
According to a person familiar with the matter, May told her counterparts that there is no guarantee that the House of Commons Speaker John Bercow would allow a third vote, even then it may not pass and there is no plan what to do if it doesn’t. The prime minister continued to object to the options of being part of the EU’s customs union, revoking Article 50 or taking part in the European Parliament elections, the person said on condition of anonymity.
On the EU side, one big consideration was the parliamentary election coming up at the end of May. With euroskeptic populists seeking to disrupt the European project, leaders were keen to have Brexit wrapped up before polling day. And failing that, to force the U.K. to stay and fulfill its obligations like the bloc’s other members.
April 12 is the cut off date for the U.K. to decide whether it will take part in the EU elections. May 22 is the last day before voting starts.
Although leaders didn’t agree on Thursday the length of the longer extension, it would likely be at least until the end of 2019, officials said.
"The EU does not have all the cards in its hands," Macron told reporters. "The EU has to face a British political crisis. It’s a complete political and democratic crisis, and it’s a British crisis."
For May, the summit was another exercise in avoiding the numerous landmines strewn in her path — too long an extension risks a backlash from the hardcore Brexiteers in her party, too short and it limits her room for maneuver and increases the risk of a catastrophic accident, with Britain tumbling out without a deal.
Looming over it all, the fundamental challenge: how to pressure a majority of lawmakers into backing her plan — the last time she tried she lost by 149 votes.
Meanwhile, an online petition urging the government to cancel Brexit surged past 3 million signatures on Friday, fueled by endorsements from singer Annie Lennox and actor Hugh Grant.
Brainstorming in Brussels
With May planning to take her deal back to Parliament for a third time next week, the plan effectively allows the first two weeks in April for the U.K. to work out what to do next. The EU wants the government to set out a clear plan for how it would use a longer extension.
In a highly unusual move for EU summits, the meeting saw leaders personally brainstorm what to offer the U.K. French President Emmanuel Macron proposed restricting the extension to May 7 but other leaders pushed back with German Chancellor Angela Merkel acting as mediator.
The EU’s initial idea was for the extension to be conditional on May’s deal passing next week, but some leaders were wary of keeping no-deal on the table right up until the March 29 leaving day. Macron did not want a summit right up against the deadline because leaders might have been taking decisions while panicking, a French official said.
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