May battles to bring Brexiteers onside

UK could seek Brexit delay up to final hour, says EU official

19 March, 2019 12:00 AM printer

LONDON: Britain’s government scrambled Monday to convince Brexit hardliners to give in at last and back Prime Minister Theresa May’s EU divorce deal, though key opponents were refusing to blink, reports AFP.

With less than two weeks to go until a potentially chaotic departure on March 29 that could trigger an economic shock, May was struggling to turn the trickle of Brexiteers coming onside into a flood.

MPs have twice heavily rejected the divorce agreement.

If they can back a deal by Wednesday, then May will head to the EU summit in Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday and seek a short technical delay to Brexit until June 30.

If MPs cannot rally round a deal, she will seek a long delay beyond that date. May will not bring the deal back before parliament unless she feels sure of enough votes to win.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there were “cautious signs of encouragement” but admitted there was a “huge amount of work to do” to win over hardcore Brexiteers.

All eyes are on Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which May’s Conservatives rely upon for a majority in parliament, and the European Research Group (ERG) of Conservative Brexiteers, both of which have so far rejected the deal.

European foreign ministers meeting in Brussels for pre-summit talks on Monday were broadly supportive of granting a delay but questioned its purpose.

Meanwhile, Brussels could handle a British request to delay its departure from the European Union right up to the final hour before Brexit day, an official said Monday.

EU leaders hope Prime Minister Theresa May will come to their summit on Thursday with a plan to ratify Britain’s withdrawal deal before March 29.

But if she decides that Britain needs more time to settle on an exit plan, she could ask for a delay up to an hour before the divorce becomes final.

“I would say one hour before midnight Brussels time,” a senior EU official told reporters at a briefing ahead of this week’s European Council summit meeting.

That is the moment — 11.00 pm in London on March 29 — when, according to current British and EU law the UK’s four-decade old membership comes to an end.

“I think everybody prefers to do it the formal way,” the official said, stressing that any delay would have to be unanimously approved by EU members.