European leaders were deciding whether to postpone Brexit and for how long Wednesday, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s eyes turned towards a snap general election.
In tense parliamentary votes on Tuesday, Johnson won preliminary backing for the divorce deal he agreed with the EU, which would have seen Britain leave the bloc on October 31.
But, in a fresh twist to the divorce saga, MPs also rejected his bid to curtail parliamentary scrutiny of the bill and rush it through in a matter of days.
European Council President Donald Tusk has recommended that EU’s 27 other member states grant a flexible extension until January 31, 2020 — to be cut short if Britain ratifies the deal before then.
But the decision on how long a prolongation will last will fall to member state leaders, many of whom would prefer a shorter delay to keep the pressure on Westminster to approve the deal quickly.
Ireland’s prime minister, Leo Varadkar, told Tusk in a call that he supports the January 31 date, but German and, especially, French officials are talking in terms of a much shorter timeline.
“If it’s a question of pushing back the date by two or three weeks, to give MPs in London a chance to ratify, then it’s not really a problem,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas told RTL television.
“If it’s a question of pushing Brexit back until the end of January, we’d need to know why. What’s going to happen in the interval and will there be elections in Great Britain?”
France’s minister for European affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, said: “At the end of the week we’ll see whether a purely technical extension of a few days is justified, to allow the British parliament to finish its procedure.”
Ambassadors from EU member states were to meet later Wednesday in Brussels to begin the decision-making procedure, but no immediate response was expected.
– Delay everything –
“My impression is the meeting will serve to have a first picture where individual member states stand,” an EU diplomat told AFP.
“The position of Tusk is known, but some others want a short-term extension,” he said.
Tusk wants the EU leaders to approve the January 31 extension “by written procedure”, but — officials said — if the members’ positions are far apart an emergency summit could be held on Monday next week.
As it stands, without their unanimous agreement, Britain is due to crash out of the EU in eight days’ time.
On Tuesday, Johnson told MPs that if parliament decided to “delay everything until January or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the government continue with this.
“We will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election: let’s get Brexit done.”
A three-month delay would give time to hold a general election before the New Year — though calling the vote would require the support of two-thirds of MPs.
The Labour main opposition has spurned two previous chances to call an election.
The Britain Elects poll aggregator puts the Conservatives on 35 percent, Labor on 25 percent, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats on 18 percent, the Brexit Party on 11 percent and the Greens on four percent.
Polling expert John Curtice told BBC radio that the polls are moving in favor of Johnson’s Conservatives — who are 33 seats short of a majority.
“If that were to be replicated in the ballot box, it should give them an overall majority, maybe around 20 or so” seats.
– 46 years of integration –
London’s stock market steadied at the open Wednesday and the pound was stable against the dollar and euro on expectations of a further delay.
Businesses and markets on both sides of the Channel fear a no-deal scenario, where Britain severs ties with its closest trading partner with no new plans in place after 46 years of integration.
In the June 2016 EU membership referendum, 52 percent of voters in the UK backed leaving the bloc.
MPs three times rejected a divorce deal struck by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May.
Johnson, who took office in July, defied expectations in striking a revised deal last Thursday — and seemed relieved that MPs voted positively for it to be considered further.
It covers EU citizens’ rights, Britain’s financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.
It also sets out vague plans for a loose free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit.
Image: AFP / Tolga AKMEN Johnson said he would halt the ratification process while European Union leaders consult on a delay