UK accepts extra time to finalise Brexit
May 22 extension date is the day before the European elections, in which the UK government does not intend to take part
European leaders agreed to extend the UK’s deadline to leave the EU from March 29 to May 22, on the condition that British MPs approve their prime minister’s withdrawal deal.
But if Theresa May’s deal is not approved by Commons next week, the EU will offer an extension until April 12 and expects the UK to indicate a way forward for consideration by the European Council.
The decision came after late-night talks at an EU summit in Brussels.
“The European Council reiterates that there can be no opening of the withdrawal agreement that was agreed between the Union and the United Kingdom in November 2018," the council said.
"Any unilateral commitment, statement or other act should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement.”
“This closes and completes the full package. There’s no more we can give," said Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission.
"We are hopeful that the agreement will be adopted by the House of Commons.”
The date has been extended to May 22 because it is the day before the European elections, in which the UK government does not intend to participate.
The April 12 date is also critical because it is the final day the UK can notify the bloc about whether it will take part in the elections.
After holding talks with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, about the proposals in Brussels, Mrs May said the UK government was now "at that moment of decision".
She said she would "make every effort to make sure we are able to leave with a deal and move forward".
Mrs May was seeking a delay until June 30 so she could obtain acceptance of her deal and pass it into law. It is an embarrassing U-turn for the British leader who had adamantly insisted that the UK would leave the bloc on March 29.
"A short extension gives us that opportunity to decide to leave the European Union, to deliver on that result of that referendum and I sincerely hope that will be with a negotiated deal,” she said on arrival in Brussels earlier on Thursday.
Mrs May sparked fury in Parliament on Wednesday night after giving a speech to the public when she turned against MPs, accusing them of holding up Brexit and being to blame for any no-deal repercussions.
But the British leader struck a more reconciliatory tone with MPs in her speech in Brussels, praising them and saying they "had a difficult job to do".
"I'm very grateful to MPs who have supported the deal and have come round to the deal that hadn't previously done so," Mrs May said.
Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn held talks on Thursday in Brussels, with chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. They discussed alternative divorce plans.
Other European leaders, such as French president Emmanuel Macron, took a hard line on Brexit.
“We need to be clear about ourselves, our British friends and our peoples," Mr Macron said on Twitter.
"The withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated. In case of a British negative vote, we would go to a no-deal."
The mood in Parliament is dour as the possibility of a no-deal Brexit becomes more likely. Government departments have been preparing for the scenario.
The Ministry of Defence has formed a contingency plan called Operation Redfold, where an underground bunker in Whitehall will become the operations centre in the event of a hard Brexit.
And Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson said in December that 3,500 troops would be on standby to deal with disruption resulting from a no-Deal Brexit.
Mr May repeated her objection to a second referendum in her Downing Street speech last night, but a petition calling her to cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50 has received more than 2 million signatures.
The Parliament’s petitions committee said the rate of signing was the highest the site has ever had to deal with, resulting in it a temporary crash.
The petitions committee said that at one point, there were nearly 2,000 signatures a minute.
Updated: March 22, 2019 04:10 AM