LONDON — Top European Union officials tossed Prime Minister Theresa May a lifeline Wednesday, saying they would allow Britain to push back its departure date from the bloc, but only if Parliament endorsed her withdrawal plan.
Lawmakers have twice rejected May’s plan emphatically, but in the unlikely event they change their minds, Britain would still need an extension. The March 29 deadline is so near, there is no way lawmakers can pass the supporting legislation needed to put any withdrawal plan into effect by then.
In offering an extension but tying it to a vote in Parliament, EU officials appeared to be trying to strengthen May’s position and to pressure British lawmakers to fall into line.
If they don’t, the alternative may be an outcome many of the lawmakers like even less than the prime minister’s plan: a break from the bloc with no provisions for cushioning the economic impact — a so-called no-deal Brexit — or an even lengthier delay. And that could potentially mean no withdrawal from the bloc at all.
Given the recent chaos and dysfunction of British politics, it was not at all clear Wednesday that the EU officials’ gambit would pay off. The showdown between Britain and the EU, it seems, may go right down to the wire
The president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, did offer a bit of encouragement in an otherwise bleak landscape.
“Even if the hope for final success may seem frail, even illusory, and although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified,” he said in statement, “we cannot give up seeking — until the very last moment — a positive solution.”
Wednesday was a day of confusion. It began with May’s formally requesting a short delay for Britain’s departure from the bloc after a bitter dispute in her Cabinet over her plan for a lengthier extension.
The deadlock in the Cabinet underscored the political crisis gripping the government. Even May’s spokesman acknowledged as much, saying the prime minister had warned that this could happen if her Brexit plan was rejected.
In a letter to EU leaders, May asked for an extension to the negotiating process until June 30, raising the prospect that Britain could still suffer a disorderly departure in the summer. Reflecting that possibility, the British pound dropped on the news.
In response, Tusk said a delay was possible, “but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons.” That seemed calculated to help May, by pressuring her critics to support her plan to avoid a disorderly, possibly chaotic, rupture that many British lawmakers fear.
Tusk pointedly avoided saying what would happen if Parliament rejected May’s plan again, though he said he would be willing to call a fresh meeting of EU leaders next week, if necessary.
A tougher line came from Paris, where Jean-Yves Le Drian, France’s foreign minister, said, “In the case of a favorable vote for the exit agreement, we will of course be open to a technical extension of a couple weeks, to let British institutions finalize the ratification of the text.”
But he added: “Without a vote approving the exit agreement, the main scenario is a no-deal exit. We are ready for it.”
The prospect of any delay to Brexit is a broad and humiliating reversal for May. It is sure to infuriate many members of her Conservative Party, most of whom support leaving the EU with no deal if necessary, and to reaffirm the cynicism, rampant among many of the 17.4 million Britons who voted to leave, that the elites in London would never let them have their way.
May’s decision was sharply criticized by the opposition Labour Party and by some of her own lawmakers.
“Theresa May is desperate once again to impose a binary choice between her deal and no deal, despite Parliament clearly ruling out both of those options last week,” Labour’s point man on Brexit, Keir Starmer, said in a statement. “What the government should be doing is showing real leadership, making good on their commitment to break the deadlock and secure an extension with a genuine purpose.”
EU leaders are unlikely to rebuff May completely — a no-deal Brexit would hit the Continent’s economies, too, if not as severely as Britain’s. But their patience is being sorely tested.
May is likely to try to return to Parliament next week and stage another vote on her deal.