The EU has handed Theresa May two weeks’ grace to devise an alternative Brexit plan if her deal falls next week after the prime minister failed to convince the bloc that she was capable of avoiding a no-deal Brexit.
After a marathon late-night session of talks, the EU’s leaders ripped up May’s proposals and a new Brexit timeline was pushed on the prime minister to avoid the cliff-edge deadline of 29 March – next Friday.
Under the deal agreed by May, Britain will now stay a member state until 12 April if the withdrawal agreement is rejected by MPs at the third time of asking.
The government will be able to seek a longer extension during that period if it can both “indicate a way forward” and agree to hold European elections.
In the unlikely event that May does win the support of the Commons when the Brexit deal goes to MPs again on Tuesday, the UK will stay a member state until 22 May to allow necessary withdrawal legislation to be passed.
“The 12 April is the new 29 March,” an EU official said.
Donald Tusk, the European council president, told reporters in a late-night press conference that he had several meetings through the evening to secure May’s agreement.
He said: “What this means in practice is that, until that date, all options will remain open, and the cliff-edge date will be delayed. The UK government will still have a choice of a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking article 50.”
Asked how long an extension could be on offer, the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, said: “Until the very end.”
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, told reporters as he left the summit that the EU had acted to protect its interests in response to a “vacuum” in Westminster.
“The EU in a very clear manner has today responded to a British political crisis,” he said. “The British politicians are incapable to put in place what their people have demanded. Their people voted for Brexit.”
Spain’s prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, described the last-minute deal as “satisfactory for both sides” and one that would safeguard the EU’s institutions in the run-up to European elections. “As far as Spain’s concerned, it’s a good deal,” he said.
“We’re at a critical moment in the construction of Europe,” he said. “History will judge what happens over the coming weeks. Spanish citizens in the UK and Britons in Spain need to know that the government is prepared for a disorderly exit. The EU and the Spanish government have attached amendments to the agreement. But it doesn’t depend on us any more – it depends on the British government.”
Earlier on Thursday, May had made an address to leaders described as “90 minutes of nothing”, by sources, during which she failed to persuade the bloc that she had a plan to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
May had been asking for an extension to article 50 until 30 June to make time for vital legislation to pass should she manage to get her deal through the Commons next week.
But her appeal “dismally” failed to offer any answers as to what she would do if the deal was blocked by MPs again, sources said, provoking EU leaders into taking matters into their own hands and in effect taking control of her future.
“She didn’t even give clarity if she is organising a vote,” said one aide to a leader. “Asked three times what she would do if she lost the vote, she couldn’t say. It was awful. Dreadful. Evasive even by her standards.”
When leaders asked May what she was going to do if her deal was voted down, an official added that the prime minister replied that she was following her plan A of getting it through. It was then that the EU decided that “she didn’t have a plan so they needed to come up with one for her”, the source added.
Special meeting of the European Council (Art. 50) (21 March 2019) – Conclusions
1. The European Council takes note of the letter of Prime Minister Theresa May of 20 March 2019.
2. In response, the European Council approves the Instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Joint Statement supplementing the Political Declaration agreed between the European Commission and the government of the United Kingdom in Strasbourg on 11 March 2019.
3. The European Council agrees to an extension until 22 May 2019, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week. If the Withdrawal Agreement is not approved by the House of Commons next week, the European Council agrees to an extension until 12 April 2019 and expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council.
4. The European Council reiterates that there can be no opening of the Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed between the Union and the United Kingdom in November 2018. Any unilateral commitment, statement or other act should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement.
5. The European Council calls for work to be continued on preparedness and contingency at all levels for the consequences of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal, taking into account all possible outcomes.
6. The European Council will remain seized of the matter.
With May out of the room, EU leaders delayed their plans to discuss relations with China and launched into a marathon late-night session in Brussels.
As their talks wound on, the EU moved towards the “flextension” delay. It was then put to May by Tusk shortly after 11pm Brussels time after eight hours of talks, with and without the prime minister.
“What this model is designed for is to make it clear that no deal is not the EU’s choice, it is the UK’s choice,” a diplomatic source said. “The prime minister is braced for a long extension, but doesn’t want to take responsibility for it,” the source said.
The EU had initially looked at solely offering an extension up until 22 May, the day before European elections would be held, on the condition May’s deal passed next week.
But it was a lack of confidence in the prime minister following her latest performance in front of the leaders that forced the EU’s member states to act to shore up against a no-deal Brexit and allow the British parliament time to take control.
France and Belgium had initially pushed for an unconditional extension up to the 7 May, on the eve of the French Fête de la Victoire bank holiday, to provide a buffer to the economic shock of a no-deal Brexit. The EU is also staging a summit in the Romanian city of Sibiu on 9 May to debate the post-Brexit future of the bloc.
Macron told the room that he did not want the chaos of a no-deal Brexit to erupt before the French went to the polls for their European elections on 26 May.
EU sources said Macron’s “trump card” had triggered the leaders to work round the problem in a new way. “The European council worked well – and it is an elegant solution,” a source said.
The prime minister said the EU’s decision left MPs with a clear choice: either they back her deal next week and leave smoothly on 22 May; or the government will have to return to Brussels with an alternative plan – either no deal or some unspecified alternative – in a fortnight’s time.
May did not repeat the promise she made in the House of Commons on Wednesday that “as prime minister”, she would not countenance a longer extension, requiring the UK to participate in European elections.
Many MPs interpreted that statement as a hint that she would step down rather than allow a longer delay. But on Thursday night she simply stressed: “I believe strongly that it would be wrong to ask people in the UK to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU.”
May also appeared to express a degree of contrition about the strident tone of her statement on Wednesday night, which caused a backlash among MPs and led to calls for her resignation.
“Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do,” she said.
MPs, including many of those whom the Tory whips were hoping to win over, had reacted angrily on Thursday to May’s claims that they were blocking the people’s will.
A cross-party group of MPs is now considering how best to allow parliament to force May towards a softer Brexit or no Brexit at all. A new amendment has been laid for debate on Monday by Tory MP Sir Oliver Letwin and Labour MP Hilary Benn that would give parliament the chance to vote on ways forward.
In Westminster, several MPs challenged the leader of the house, Andrea Leadsom, about the prime minister’s tone.
On Thursday night, businesses and trades unions joined together to urge her to change course. In a rare joint letter, the TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, and the CBI’s Carolyn Fairbairn described the situation as a “national emergency” and called on the prime minister to seek a plan B.