EU is said to mull 21-month delay if May can’t get Brexit done

Letter helium balloons spelling out EU float during pro and anti-Brexit demonstrations outside Houses of Parliament in London, UK. (Bloomberg pic)

SHARM EL-SHEIKH: The European Union is considering telling Theresa May that if she can’t get her Brexit deal through Parliament and wants to delay the departure date, the country will have to stay in the bloc until 2021.

Three European officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said senior EU figures and several governments back an extension of as much as 21 months beyond the scheduled Mar 29 exit day.

The idea will enrage pro-Brexit lawmakers in May’s party, who will probably see it as a tactic to get them to back May’s deal.

A fourth European official also said it looked like a scare tactic.

Officials on both sides now expect some kind of extension as a way of avoiding a no-deal scenario that businesses consider catastrophic.

The idea of a short three-month postponement has long been floated.

But EU officials now say three months wouldn’t be enough to break the deadlock – that would only work if the deal had been ratified by Parliament and more time was needed just to pass outstanding legislation.

May is trying to get the EU to make changes to her unpopular Brexit deal so that members of Parliament can accept it.

But diplomats in Brussels and European capitals increasingly think that nothing they offer will be enough to convince enough of them, the officials said.

“If by the beginning of March there’s no support for the deal then I think it would be good to postpone Brexit because a no-deal scenario is bad for the EU but extremely bad for the UK,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters as he arrived for an EU-Arab League summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, on Sunday.

Offering only a long extension will be seen in the UK as a way of frightening pro-Brexit lawmakers into backing her unpopular deal, as they would have to decide between May’s version of Brexit and the risk that a long extension would mean Brexit gets stopped altogether.

But EU officials said postponing the exit would allow time to get back around the negotiating table to thrash out a far more comprehensive plan for future trade ties.

The idea has been floated with the British side, the officials said.

While the 21-month plan is gaining support in the EU – including with senior officials in the European Commission and in the European Council chaired by EU President Donald Tusk, it is by no means certain. Several countries want only a short extension while others are reluctant to grant one at all without the firm UK plan to break the deadlock, officials said.

Under the rules of the Brexit negotiating process, any delay to Britain’s departure would have to be requested by the UK and agreed to by all the 27 remaining EU governments.

“We want to leave the European Union on Mar 29 with a deal,” May said on the way into the summit.

“That’s what we’re working for and we’ve had good progress, constructive discussions with the European Union and we’ll be continuing that work so we can leave on Mar 29 and leave with a deal.”