Mixed reaction in EU as May goes cap in hand for extension

For more than two years, British prime minister Theresa May insisted that her country would leave the European Union at 11pm on March 29 next. On the record, from the dispatch box in the House of Commons, she said it 108 times.

That was until yesterday — the 1,000th day since the Brexit referendum which delivered a 52%-48% majority to quit the EU.

Yesterday, she went cap in hand, and formally wrote to the EU seeking a short extension until June 30 in a bid to avoid a disorderly exit.

That in itself was yet another humiliating climbdown from a prime minister who has made being a loser a way of life, while attempting bravely to carry on.

The reaction from Europe was mixed, to say the least.

The European Commission released a briefing note which opposed the idea of extending to June 30, adding that any extension beyond May 24, when EU elections will be held, would require Britain to elect MEPs, which would be highly controversial in current circumstances.

EU European Council president Donald Tusk struck a slightly more conciliatory tone, saying an extension would be permissible, but with one major condition.

Mr Tusk, a droll former Polish prime minister, told a press conference in Brussels: “In the light of the consultations that I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension would be possible.

But it would be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons. The question remains open as to the duration of such an extension.

Mr Tusk gave voice to the growing “Brexit fatigue” in capital cities across the continent which was echoed by comments from Paris, Rome, and Madrid.

France, Spain, Belgium, and maybe Italy stand prepared to reject an extension without evidence parliament is now ready to accept a deal and “the deadlock can be broken”.

In Dublin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar called for Ms May to be given a break in order to avoid a disorderly Brexit, which of course would be disastrous for Ireland.

“It’s time now to cut them some slack, to cut the British government some slack, when it comes to their request for an extension and when it comes to their request that the Strasbourg Agreement be ratified formally by the European Council over the next two days.”

He added that the Irish Government was willing to support both of those requests but that it was “not entertaining any change to the withdrawal agreement or the backstop”.

EU leaders meet in Brussels today in order to reach some agreement which could allow a third meaningful vote in the House of Commons to take place on Monday.

Were that to fail, either to happen or to pass, Mr Tusk made it clear he would “not hesitate” to call an emergency summit next week.

“If the leaders approve my recommendations and there is a positive vote in the House of Commons next week, we can finalise and formalise the decision on extension in the written procedure,” he said. “However, if there is such a need, I will not hesitate to invite the members of the European Council for a meeting to Brussels next week.”

Mr Tusk added:

Even if the hope for final success may seem frail, even illusory, and although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking until the very last moment a positive solution — of course, without opening up the withdrawal agreement.

Ms May stood a broken woman in Downing St last night addressing her people, but refusing to bow out, when all hope appears lost. She insisted her deal, which has been rejected twice so overwhelmingly by the Commons, is still the only deal possible.

Such inflexibility from Ms May, unfortunately for Ireland, greatly increases the chances of a no-deal Brexit.

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