PARIS/BERLIN (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron’s office set out blunt conditions on Tuesday as British Prime Minister Theresa May headed for Paris to ask him to agree to a delay in Britain’s departure from the European Union.
More than a week after the United Kingdom was originally supposed to leave, the weakest British prime minister in a generation has said she fears Brexit might never happen as she battles to get a divorce deal ratified by a divided parliament.
As her ministers held crisis talks in London with the opposition Labour Party in the hope of breaking the domestic deadlock, May dashed to Berlin and then Paris on the eve of Wednesday’s emergency EU summit.
She hoped to rally Europe’s two most powerful leaders behind her request to delay Brexit a second time, from April 12 to June 30.
EU governments have all but excluded forcing Britain out of the bloc on Friday, EU diplomats in Brussels said.
While many, including May herself, would much prefer Britain to go before European Parliament elections at the end of next month, there appears to be increasing focus on a longer delay of up to a year – not least to defuse the continuing threat of a no-deal Brexit, and all the economic disruption it would bring.
But France, keen to try to reform the EU without disruption or sniping from Britain, has made plain its growing impatience.
Shortly before May was due to land, an official in Macron’s office said that “in the scenario of an extended delay, one year would seem too long for us”.
He added that, if Britain did delay its exit, it should not take part in EU budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU executive, the Commission – and that the other 27 member states should be able to review its “sincere cooperation”.
Earlier in the day, May met Merkel at her riverside Chancellery, a short walk from the Brandenburg Gate, and departed with a warm exchange of kisses.
“The leaders agreed on the importance of ensuring Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the European Union,” May’s office said in a statement.
While they discussed Brexit, Germany’s opposition liberal FDP party drove an advertising van past the Chancellery with a slogan reading: “Dear Theresa May. Just do it. Stop Brexit. Make the most of Europe’s opportunities.”
In preparation for the emergency summit, the EU’s second in two weeks, foreign and Europe ministers met in Strasbourg.
Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc was ready to grant a delay, but added: “Any extension should serve a purpose. The length should be proportional to the objective. Our objective is an orderly withdrawal.”
“‘No-deal’ will never be the EU’s decision. In order to avoid ‘no-deal’, the UK needs to agree to a deal,” he told a news conference in Luxembourg.
In London, British Solicitor General Robert Buckland said May would “listen carefully” to any constructive suggestions made by the EU on the length of the extension, and conceded that the government might not have managed to ratify an exit deal in parliament before European elections are held on May 23-26.
The pound, which has seesawed so much on Brexit news that some investors have stepped away from the sterling market, rose and then dipped on speculation Merkel could offer May a better deal. Germany denied that. [GBP/]
The 2016 referendum revealed a United Kingdom split over much more than EU membership, and has sparked impassioned debate about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and what it means to be British.
Yet nothing is yet resolved.
Unable to convince enough of her own Conservatives of the merits of her deal to get it passed, May is courting socialist Jeremy Corbyn, whose Labour Party wants to keep Britain more closely tied to the bloc after Brexit.
Labour’s demands include keeping Britain in a customs union with the EU, something that is hard to reconcile with May’s desire for Britain to have an independent trade policy, and potentially a second referendum on any deal.
Asked before talks if the government had shown any willingness to countenance a customs union, John McDonnell, its finance policy chief, told reporters: “Not yet, not even changes in language that I detect, but we’ll see what comes out this afternoon.”
McDonnell said a customs union with the EU, seen as the most likely area for compromise but so far resisted by May’s government, was the first item on the agenda for the talks, which were to include finance minister Philip Hammond.
The idea of a softer Brexit is anathema to eurosceptics in May’s Conservative party who have helped to defeat her divorce deal three times this year.
Meanwhile in London, lawmakers were due to debate May’s Brexit delay proposal.
Without an extension, Britain is due to leave the EU at 2200 GMT on Friday, with no transition arrangements to cushion the economic shock.
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, William James, Elizabeth Piper and Costas Pitas in London, Gabriela Baczynska in Luxembourg and Richard Lough in Paris; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Kevin Liffey; Editing by Mark Heinrich