World

EU, Britain agree to delay Brexit to Oct 31

French President blocks union from granting UK an even longer extension

BRUSSELS: European Union leaders gave Britain six more months to leave the bloc, more than Prime Minister Theresa May has said she needs but less than many in the bloc wanted, thanks to fierce resistance from France.

The summit deal in Brussels yesterday meant Britain will not crash out today without a treaty. But it offers little clarity on when, how or even if Brexit will happen, as Mrs May struggles to build support in Parliament for withdrawal terms agreed with the EU last year.

With German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisting Britain would not be forced out and a chaotic no-deal departure must be avoided if possible, there was never any real doubt that Mrs May would get an extension.

The drama was about its length and conditions.

French President Emmanuel Macron pushed leaders into hours of debate over dinner as he fought a largely solo campaign to persuade them not to give the British up to another year.

Summit chair Donald Tusk and others argued that obliging Mrs May to accept a much longer deadline than the June 30 date she had sought could help swing pro-Brexit hardliners within her own Conservative party behind her deal, fearing a long delay could see the British public turning against a withdrawal altogether.

But Mr Macron insisted that letting Britain stay in the EU any longer risked undermining the project of European integration that is one of his policy goals.

The result was a compromise on the date, with a deadline of Oct 31, for Britain to leave - on condition that Mrs May holds an election on May 23 to return British members to a new European Parliament that convenes in July, and that it pledge not to disrupt key EU decision-making before it leaves.

If Mrs May fails to win over lawmakers on the treaty or fails to hold an election, Britain will leave with no deal on June 1.

She was keen to stress that the extension to Oct 31 - and several leaders refused to rule out further delays - did not mean she would not deliver Brexit sooner and before she steps down.

FRUSTRATION

"I know there is huge frustration from many people that I had to request this extension," she told reporters, as her team prepared for another round of talks yesterday with the Labour opposition, to whom Mrs May turned to for help last week.

"But the choices we now face are stark and the timetable is clear. So we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach consensus on a deal that is in the national interest," she added, acknowledging the coming weeks would not be easy.

Mr Tusk said the delay gave time for London to ratify Mrs May's deal, tweak elements of the future EU-British relationship to Labour's liking - or give it a chance to "cancel Brexit".

Dr Merkel stressed a need for calm: "We want an orderly exit by Britain," she said.

"And an orderly exit by Britain can be best ensured if we give it some time."

Mr Macron defended his resistance to giving Britain nine months or a year more, saying it was for the "common good".

French officials, pointing to threats by some of Mrs May's pro-Brexit potential successors, spoke of the EU facing "blackmail" by a future Britain blocking decisions in Brussels.

"It is true that the majority was more in favour of a very long extension. But it was not logical in my view, and above all, it was neither good for us, nor for the UK," said Mr Macron.

French pressure also tightened clauses referring to Britain not disrupting EU affairs if it stays in longer and a reference to a June 20-21 EU summit taking stock of the position again.

Mrs May failed to convince many leaders, notably Mr Macron, that she had a new strategy for securing ratification.

Leaders are exasperated with her handling of a tortuous and costly divorce that is a distraction from ensuring the bloc can hold its own against global economic challenges.

The EU executives also celebrated its part in funding a project that produced the first picture of a black hole, prompting ironic comments.

Blogger Eliot Higgins tweeted: "We're more certain about what black holes look like than what Brexit looks like." - REUTERS

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