Latest: Donald Tusk confirms talks with Theresa May over potential Brexit extension

Latest: Donald  Tusk confirms talks with Theresa May over potential Brexit extension
British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and European Union Council President Donald Tusk. Photo: EPA/Francisco Seco/POOL

Update 1pm: European Council president Donald Tusk and British prime minister Theresa May have for the first time held direct talks about potentially delaying Brexit past the March 29 divorce deadline.

Mr Tusk confirmed the development to reporters on Monday afternoon, saying due to "the situation we are in, it is a rational solution".

Speaking to reporters at a press conference alongside European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Egyptian president Abdel al-Sisi at the end of the first ever EU-Arab League summit, Mr Tusk was asked about speculation over a Brexit deadline extension.

In a detailed answer, he confirmed Ms May raised the prospect of "a potential extension" with him during a private one-to-one meeting yesterday.

"I believe in the situation we are in it is a rational solution," he said.

Mr Tusk gave no position on whether the extension discussion involved a short delay for a number of months or a longer two year delay rumoured in British media.

However, he said it is important to "bring an end to speculation" over the issue.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had earlier today told Irish reporters in Egypt he believes there will either be a Brexit deal or an extension by March 29.

However, Ms May has so far publicly rejected the merits of any extension, and is understood to have downplayed the possibility of any extension request at a private one-to-one meeting with German chancellor Angela Merkel today.

Earlier: Taoiseach on Brexit: 'We will either have a deal or we will have an extension'

Update 12.02pm: Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has thrown down the gauntlet to hard-line Brexiteers by saying they will have to choose between agreeing a deal or delaying Brexit - insisting "no one" wants Britain to crash out of the EU with no agreement.

Speaking to reporters on the sidelines of the first ever EU-Arab League summit in Sharm el-Sheikh before a one-to-one meeting with British prime minister Theresa May later this afternoon, Mr Varadkar said he is "confident" one of the two options will be chosen.

Latest: Donald  Tusk confirms talks with Theresa May over potential Brexit extension

Speculation has grown over the past 24 hours that Ms May will either seek a short two-month extension to the March 29 EU-UK divorce date or that EU officials may suggest a two year delay - neither of which will be palatable to Brexiteers.

However, asked for his views on the rumours on Monday morning, Mr Varadkar said he believes within a month London will be forced to choose between accepting the existing deal or delay Brexit itself.

"Brexit isn't officially on the agenda, but obviously there have been a lot of meetings on the sidelines about it. What is evident to me is that absolutely nobody wants the UK to crash out of the EU without a deal," he said.

That is a lose-lose-lose scenario for everyone and it gives me confidence, or at least a sense, that the UK will not crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29. We will either have a deal or we will have an extension.

Asked if, should an extension be sought, he has a preference for either a short delay or a two year delay - both of which have been rumoured in the British media - Mr Varadkar said:

"I don't really. The way it works is that if an extension is being mooted the UK has to request it and the EU considers it. From my point of view and from Ireland's point of view, I would certainly rather see an extension than the UK leaving without a deal.

"A long extension does create a complication of course, in terms of the European elections and so on, but that's a small complication relative to the impact on our economy and Northern Ireland if there is a no deal Brexit.

“There are different views. The EU can’t really consider any requests for an extension until that comes in and it hasn’t as yet.

"A lot of people, a lot of colleagues feel that if there is an extension, it should be an extension with a plan rather than an extension just to continue negotiations which have already gone on for almost two years.

"But my own view is that nobody wants a no deal exit by the UK on March. It doesn’t benefit the UK, it doesn’t benefit Ireland, it doesn’t benefit the European Union. And that is why I feel the chances are that won’t happen."

Mr Varadkar was also asked if he has any opinion on the speculation that Ms May only decided to delay the "meaningful" vote on the withdrawal deal due in the House of Commons on Wednesday until March 12 - just 17 days before the Brexit deadline - in the hope either Brexiteers or the EU will crack.

Latest: Donald  Tusk confirms talks with Theresa May over potential Brexit extension

He said: “I have heard that speculation and I have heard that analysis. To be honest, I don’t know whether that is a correct assessment or not.

Prime Minister May knows her parliament, knows her country’s politics better than I do. I imagine whatever strategy she has is one that is well informed and it is not really for me to get involved in that.

"I will have an opportunity to meet her in the next couple of hours. It will be a chance for me really to listen, to hear about her plans for the next couple of weeks.

"How she intends to get the withdrawal agreement ratified and how we might be able to assist in that but always bearing in mind that anything that is offered by the EU can’t contradict the letter or spirit of what has already been agreed.”

Asked if he knows yet what Ms May could want as part of potential "mechanisms" to give her fresh assurances on the backstop, Mr Varadkar said:

"I don’t actually. I haven’t seen any formal proposal from the UK side.

"Our position and our objectives are the same as they have been from the very start - to secure the common travel area and then all the rights and freedoms and privileges for British and Irish citizens that comes with that.

"That has been secured. We have a deal done on that. It’s in the withdrawal agreement, we’re passing the legislation at the moment.

“"Obviously in the medium term, in the future relationship we want to continue to have as close a trading relationship as possible with the UK, that’s really important for exporters, for businesses and farmers.

"And then there is the overriding objective which is the protection of the peace process and the Good Friday agreement and ensuring that a hard border doesn’t emerge on our island.

"They’ve been our objectives since day one and we’ve never demurred from them, we’re not going to now.”

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