European Union leaders are expected to confirm that Brexit won’t take place Friday when they meet British Prime Minister Theresa May at another crisis summit on Wednesday.
But diplomats say they are still wrestling on how long it might be delayed and under what conditions.
May met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel for about 1½ hours Tuesday. A spokesperson for May later released a statement saying the prime minister outlined to Merkel the steps she was taking to bring “the Brexit process to a successful conclusion” and on discussions with the opposition Labour Party.
May headed to Paris later Tuesday to meet French President Emmanuel Macron, while EU ministers gathered in Luxembourg to prepare for Wednesday’s meeting.
Two weeks after a summit at which the other 27 EU leaders granted London a fortnight’s grace from the original departure deadline until April 12, EU ministers said May had failed to meet their conditions for a further extension — namely to show them a plan for using additional time to avoid crashing out.
But EU diplomats said there was no appetite around the table to drop the axe on Britain just yet. They said that talks, which were to continue among national envoys in Brussels later on Tuesday, were now focused on a proposal from summit chair Donald Tusk to give Britain up to a year longer to organize its withdrawal.
“People are tired and fed up — but what to do?” one said. “We won’t be the ones pushing the U.K . off the cliff edge.”
May’s Conservative government and the Labour Party have been trying to find a compromise Brexit deal. A government spokesperson said the two sides have had further productive and wide-ranging talks and have agreed to meet again Thursday.
European implications of an extension
A long extension would entail Britain holding an election on May 23 to return lawmakers to the new session of the European Parliament, which starts on July 2. The EU would also like to limit Britain’s ability to influence key decisions, such as on the bloc’s new executive leadership or budget, if it stays for longer — though that would be far from easy to do legally.
A nine-month extension to Dec. 31 was gaining favor, diplomats said. But officials are also trying to come up with ways to pressure the British to take a decision sooner rather than later — in part, by offering a long delay that pro-Brexit critics of May’s deal fear might mean Brexit never happens.
“Any extension should serve a purpose. The length should be proportional to the objective. Our objective is an orderly withdrawal,” Michel Barnier, the EU’sBrexit negotiator, told reporters after briefing ministers in Luxembourg.
“No-deal will never by the EU’s decision,” he added. “In order to avoid no-deal, the U.K. needs to agree to a deal.”
An aide to Macron, who has taken a lead in pushing for the Union to be ready to show Britain the door if its parliament cannot ratify a withdrawal deal, said a full year would be too long. The aide stressed that Britain could be subject to reviews of its behavior to ensure it did not disrupt the bloc from within.
May has renewed the request she made last month for an extension to June 30, saying that talks she launched last week with her Labour opponents gave her a chance of ratifying her Brexit deal after three previous defeats in parliament.
EU leaders would much prefer Britain to be out by May 22, before the elections, and will insist on Britain holding its own vote on May 23, even if it expects to have left before the new EU legislature sits in July. May has planned for a contingency of giving six weeks’ notice by Friday of an EU election.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel will host a meeting of Britain’s closest neighbours, the ones who would be hardest hit by the disruption of a no-deal Brexit, just ahead of the summit. Officials expect the French, Dutch, Danish and Swedish leaders to attend – in principle to coordinate on trade arrangements, but also to discuss objectives for the summit in the evening.
May was due to address the 27 at 12:30 p.m. ET on Wednesday before leaving the room while the others discuss over dinner whether and how to postpone Friday’s deadline for Britain’s departure.
“Things are fluid,” a senior EU diplomat said. Leaders were meeting and calling each other across the continent, trying to coordinate, leaving the summit outcome still very uncertain.
This story originally appeared on CBC