Michel Barnier has suggested that the price of a long Brexit delay in the event of Theresa May’s deal being defeated again would be a soft Brexit or a “new event” such as a second referendum or general election.
Speaking two days before Thursday’s crunch leaders’ summit, the EU’s chief negotiator said the bloc’s heads of state and government would want to be convinced of the usefulness of extra time, given the costs involved.
The EU is seeking a detailed road map from the prime minister on how parliament will decide on one of those options should her deal be rejected again next week, and is pushing for a commitment by May that a decision would be made by MPs by mid-April.
The prime minister will seek agreement at this week’s EU summit on an extra three months of membership, to pass the necessary withdrawal legislation in the event of her deal being backed by the Commons next week, or a longer period otherwise.
Barnier raised the bar for May by warning that for the EU’s 27 leaders to unanimously agree on such a prolonged delay to Brexit, it would need to be linked to a major change of tack by the British government.
“The key questions will be: does an extension increase the chances of the ratification of the withdrawal agreement? Will the UK request an extension because it wants a bit more time to rework the political declaration?” Barnier said.
The EU has been pushing May to work with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, who wants a permanent customs union to be written into the political declaration on the future relationship.
“I recall this political declaration, which sets out the framework of our future relations, could be made more ambitious in the coming days if a majority in the House of Commons so wishes,” Barnier added.
“If not, what would be the purpose and outcome of an extension? And how can we ensure that at the and of a possible extension we are not back at the same situation as we are today? In any case, the EU council will need to access what is the best interests of the EU.”
In his briefing to ministers, Barnier explicitly mentioned a general election or second referendum as possible reasons for a long delay, EU sources said.
Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Barnier said: “My feeling is that a longer extension needs to be linked to something. There needs to be a new event, a new political process and obviously I cannot attempt to preempt such a process.”
The EU is not legally allowed to set conditions on an extension, but understandings are being sought. May’s de facto deputy, David Lidington, was engaged on Tuesday in intensive preparatory talks in Brussels on a way forward.
The EU is likely to offer the UK a long extension, with an option to exit after three months. But Brussels wants to know by mid-April whether the UK is going to take advantage of the longer delay so that it knows whether European elections need to be held in Britain.
Earlier in the day, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said she would fight until the “final hour” of 29 March to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but admitted she cannot second-guess the outcome of the EU summit this week due to the chaos in Westminster.
Following the decision by the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, to effectively block the UK government from putting May’s deal to MPs, Merkel expressed her surprise.
She said it was up to the British prime minister to tell the EU what was now required, but the “flux” in UK politics made it impossible to predict how the saga would develop.
The EU is expected to come to an agreement on the length of a Brexit delay with May on Thursday and leave it open to be formally signed off until the last hour of 29 March, allowing time for a further vote on the prime minister’s deal.
Speaking in Berlin, Merkel said: “I admit that I wasn’t on top of the British parliament’s 17th-century procedural rules.
“Now we’ll have to see what Theresa May tells us, what her demands are – and we will try to react to that …
“So we’ll be watching very closely how the British government responds to what was said yesterday in the parliament and then respond to the situation. I can’t assess how things will be on Thursday, far too much is in flux.”
Merkel declined to comment on the length of the extension, which will have to be unanimously agreed by the 27 heads of state and government.
“I will fight until the final hour of the deadline of March 29 that we have an orderly exit,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of time for that, but a few days, and I can’t foresee how I’ll be placed on Thursday – that will all depend on what Theresa May puts forward, what the situation is, what happens in parliament, and then we the 27 will respond adequately and jointly.”
Merkel added that she respected the Commons. “We know where the hammer hangs,” she said, in reference to parliament having the final say on any deal.
Barnier added in his comments that the Brexit process was in a “very, very sensitive” period and that “everyone should now finalise all preparations for a no-deal scenario”.