Donald Tusk was fighting to forge consensus among EU member states on Wednesday for a Brexit delay to January 31, as Brussels officials warned that any other course would lead to the bloc being dragged into the UK’s domestic political debate.
The European Council president spoke with leaders including Germany’s Angela Merkel and Ireland’s Leo Varadkar, the day after UK prime minister Boris Johnson lost a vote in the House of Commons about implementing his Brexit deal.
Mr Tusk was making the case that the political turmoil at Westminster meant that the EU should accept Britain’s request for a postponement to January 31.
His plan would leave the door open to the UK departing the EU sooner if it were ready, leading to the proposal being dubbed a “flextension”.
It is understood that Mr Tusk wants the EU to take a formal decision on the extension around the end of this week or the beginning of next, so providing time for the situation in Westminster to become clearer.
Mr Varadkar has publicly backed the plan for an extension to January 31, which Mr Tusk hopes can be settled by a “written procedure”, without EU leaders having to meet for a special summit in Brussels.
There have also been signs of support from Berlin. Steffen Seibert, Ms Merkel’s spokesman, said on Wednesday that a Brexit extension “won’t fail because of Germany”.
He refused to be drawn on whether Berlin would welcome an extension until January 31, saying he did not want to “pre-empt consultations” in Brussels.
Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said in a tweet that the EU should endorse a sizeable delay. “The one thing EU leaders can do right now for the UK is [give] the country the time it needs,” he wrote.
But diplomats in Brussels said there were still doubts about the position of France, which has repeatedly warned that Britain must justify the need for any slippage in the current Brexit deadline of October 31. Paris has stressed that the process needed to be brought to a close.
Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, responded caustically to the Commons vote on Tuesday, saying that “we cannot prolong this situation indefinitely”.
During a meeting between Mr Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, Labour leader, on Wednesday, Dominic Cummings, the prime minister’s chief adviser, predicted the French government would veto any Brexit delay, according to one person briefed on the conversation. Labour rejected Mr Cummings’ prediction.
A meeting of ambassadors from the other 27 EU member states in Brussels on Wednesday evening took no decisions on the length of any Brexit delay.
But one EU diplomat said that the “mood in the room” suggested the bloc would ultimately back Mr Tusk’s plan for an extension to January 31.
There was “a unanimous view that an extension will be needed to overcome the deadlock in London”, added diplomat.
An EU official said the meeting also showed “a strong preference to use a written procedure to take the final decision”. Any extension requires unanimous support from EU27 governments.
In theory, the EU could offer the UK a different Brexit date to January 31, including a short “technical extension” of a matter of days.
Mr Johnson, who held a phone call with Mr Tusk on Wednesday, has warned that moving the deadline to as far away as January 31 would ruin his efforts to push his Brexit deal through the Commons, leaving no alternative but a general election.
But EU officials said that it would be politically treacherous for the bloc to deviate from the request that Mr Johnson made on Saturday in a letter to Mr Tusk for a delay to January 31.
British MPs who are against a no-deal Brexit passed a law requiring Mr Johnson to write the letter, but he refused to sign it, consistent with his pledge that Britain must leave the EU on October 31 after two previous delays to the UK’s departure.
There is “absolutely no desire in the EU to . . . become an actor in the domestic UK debate,” said one EU official.
A written procedure by the EU to approve a delay could be carried out and completed in less than 24 hours, said another official.
Under the terms of the Benn act passed by the UK parliament, a January 31 deadline would be automatically accepted by the British government.
Were the EU to instead offer an alternative date, this could either be accepted by the government or put to a vote in parliament within two days.
EU ambassadors are expected to meet again on Friday. “All agreed [at Wednesday’s meeting] on the need for an extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit,” said an EU official. “The duration of an extension is still being discussed.”