LONDON—France threatened to reject British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for a three-month delay to Brexit on March 20 unless she can guarantee to get her departure plans through parliament, potentially sending Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
May asked the European Union to allow Britain to extend Brexit to June 30 and EU leaders are expected to discuss the matter at a summit on March 21. The decision must be taken unanimously by all remaining 27 EU members.
Some EU states, including Germany, had given a largely positive response to May’s well-flagged request.
But with the clock ticking toward Britain’s formal departure date on March 29, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said May would need to make her case before EU leaders in Brussels.
“Our position is to send the British a clear and simple message: As Theresa May said repeatedly herself, there are only two options to get out of the EU: Ratify the Withdrawal Agreement or exit without a deal,” Le Drian told the French parliament.
“A situation in which Mrs. May will not be able to present to the European Council sufficient guarantees of the credibility of her strategy would lead to the extension request being dismissed and opting for a no-deal exit,” he said.
May’s initiative came just nine days before Britain is formally due to leave the European Union and marked the latest twist in more than two years of negotiations that have left British politics in chaos and the prime minister’s authority in tatters.
After the defeats in parliament opened up the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal and a smooth transition, May said she remained committed to leaving “in an orderly manner” and wanted to postpone Brexit until June 30.
Her announcement prompted uproar in parliament, where the opposition Labour Party accused her of “blackmail, bullying, and bribery” in her attempts to push her deal through, and one prominent pro-Brexit supporter in her own Conservative Party said seeking a delay was “betraying the British people.”
Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU by 52 to 48 percent, but the decision has split the country, opening up divisive debates over the future of the economy, the nation’s place in the world and the nature of Britishness itself.
A European Commission document seen by Reuters said the delay should either be several weeks shorter, to avoid a clash with European elections in May or extend at least until the end of the year, which would oblige Britain to take part in the elections.
European Council President Donald Tusk said that granting Britain a short postponement of Brexit was possible on condition that Britain’s parliament votes in favor of the stalled divorce agreement next week.
Should that happen, Tusk said no extraordinary EU leaders’ summit would be needed next week before the current Brexit date of March 29. Otherwise, he might call the 27 national leaders of EU countries staying on together after Brexit back to Brussels.
“In the light of the consultations that I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension will be possible, but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” Tusk told journalists before chairing the EU leaders’ talks in Brussels on March 21 and 22.
Tusk said there remained the question of how long such a delay should last.
“Prime Minister May’s proposal of the 30th of June, which has its merits, creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature,” he said.
Tusk said that an extension could be granted in writing if EU leaders approved his proposal and Britain’s parliament voted in favor of the withdrawal agreement.
By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan, and William James