Prime Minister Theresa May insisted Wednesday she wants Britain to leave the EU as soon as possible even as she prepared to agree a potentially long delay to Brexit at an emergency summit in Brussels.
Without a postponement, Britain is due to end its 46-year membership of the European Union at midnight on Friday with no deal, risking economic chaos.
May had wanted to be given until June 30 to try once again to get her EU divorce deal through parliament, but her fellow leaders are expected to offer her a longer delay, of up to a year.
‘I want us to be able to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way as soon as possible,’ the prime minister said as she arrived for talks in Brussels.
She added: ‘I've asked for an extension to June 30 but what is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the withdrawal agreement.’
Under intense pressure from Brexit supporters at home, May said she still hoped to leave the EU on May 22, the last day before Britain must hold European Parliament elections.
But in Berlin earlier, Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU leaders might back a delay ‘longer than the British prime minister has requested’.
She said it should be ‘as short as possible’ but said she believed British politicians should be given ‘a reasonable amount of time’ to reach an agreement.
‘It should be long enough to create a certain calm so we don't have to meet every two weeks to deal with the same subject,’ Merkel told the German parliament.
EU Council President Donald Tusk has also suggested there is ‘little reason to believe’ the British parliament can ratify the deal by June 30.
MPs have rejected the plan three times, and May has already been forced to delay Brexit once, from March 29 to April 12. She reluctantly opened talks last week with the opposition Labour party, but those are moving slowly.
‘One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year,’ Tusk said.
According to a draft copy of the summit conclusions that EU leaders were to negotiate later in the day, they were to agree to an extension to allow May time to ratify the withdrawal agreement.
- EU elections in doubt -
‘Such an extension should last only as long as necessary and, in any event, no longer than [XX.XX.XXXX],’ the draft reads. The other 27 EU leaders will thrash out what date to fill in the blanks on Wednesday.
‘If the withdrawal agreement is ratified by both parties before this date, the withdrawal will take place on the first day of the following month,’ the draft, seen by AFP says.
Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis said he expected EU leaders to delay Brexit for ‘much more time’ than May asked, on condition that it holds European elections.
‘That is why we can agree -- I speak for myself -- the prolongation,’ he said as he arrived in Brussels.
Britain has already reluctantly began preparations for the polls, setting the date for May 23, although officials insist they could still cancel it at the last minute.
The draft conclusions say that if Britain fails to take part, it will leave the bloc on June 1.
If an extension is agreed, Brussels will portray it as a concession to Britain, with some members -- particularly France -- not keen to see the disruptive Brexit drama drag on much longer.
EU members want to ensure that a semi-detached Britain does not seek leverage in Brexit talks by intervening in choosing the next head of the European Commission or the next multi-year EU budget.
May will make her case to her colleagues before leaving them to discuss the length of the Brexit delay -- and any conditions -- without her.
Britain was originally due to leave the EU on March 29. But Brussels agreed an extension after the British parliament rejected the withdrawal agreement negotiated with May.
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