- Brexit delayed for 6 months until October 31.
- Prime Minister Theresa May had requested a short extension, but it was rejected by EU leaders after six hours of intense talks.
- May had promised the UK parliament she would not deliver a long Brexit delay – but now it will be postponed until Halloween.
- The prime minister insists she will use the six month extension to pursue a cross-party deal with Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.
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BRUSSELS & LONDON – Brexit will be delayed by up to six months, after European leaders rejected Theresa May’s request for a short extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.
EU leaders, excluding May, met in Brussels on Wednesday evening to discuss her request for the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU to be postponed until June 30, 2019. The prime minister had sought a two-and-a-half month delay which she claimed would be enough time for a Brexit deal to pass through the House of Commons, and help the UK avoid taking part in the upcoming European Parliament elections.
However, after hours of intense talks, the leaders of the other 27 EU member states agreed to delay Brexit until October 31, meaning that the UK could remain in the EU until Halloween.
The new extension comes with a “review point” in June, when EU leaders will check to see if the UK is following the conditions of its prolonged membership, including participation in European Parliament elections. Britain could also leave the EU before the new October deadline if MPs agree to a new withdrawal agreement before that time.
“I know that there is huge frustration from many people that I had to request this extension. The UK should have left the EU by now and I sincerely regret the fact that I have not yet been able to persuade Parliament to approve a deal which would allow the UK to leave in a smooth and orderly way,” May said in a statement after the new deadline was agreed.
“But the choices we now face are stark and the timetable is clear. So we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest.”
European Council President Donald Tusk confirmed on Twitter just before 1 a.m. (BST) that Theresa May had agreed to a new Brexit day, tweeting: “EU27/UK have agreed a flexible extension until 31 October. This means additional six months for the UK to find the best possible solution.”
Brexit was originally scheduled to take place on March 29. However, fundamental disagreements between the UK government and the EU, plus between MPs in the House of Commons, created months of deadlock.
Prime Minister May has previously insisted she would not accept a long delay, telling MPs last month: “I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30.”
However, May told her European partners that the UK would use the extension to forge a new cross-party agreement on Brexit.
Talks in Brussels lasted for around five hours, with leaders offering a range of views on how long Brexit should be delayed.
French President Emmanuel Macron was particularly keen to push back against suggestions that the UK could stay in the EU for another twelve months, leading to a compromise deadline of October 31.
At a press conference late on Wednesday night, Tusk said he had a message for his “friends” in the UK: “This extension is as flexible as I expected and a little shorter than I expected – but it is enough to find a solution … Please do not waste this time.”
The UK is also still free to revoke Article 50 and cancel Brexit entirely, he added.
In the past week, the prime minister and her team have held a series of meetings with the opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn and his advisers about a possible compromise deal.
However, talks have faltered in recent days with Labour insisting that the government has refused to change any of its long-standing red lines.
Labour has demanded that May keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, with large numbers of Labour MPs also pushing for an agreement to hold a referendum on whatever deal is eventually agreed.
The prime minister has repeatedly opposed both of these demands, with Conservative MPs threatening to oust her as their leader if she agrees to a deal with Corbyn.
What happens next?
The prime minister will return to London on Thursday to update the House of Commons on the agreement reached with the EU. May will not have to seek approval of MPs for the UK’s new exit date, having already secured a parliamentary majority for delaying Brexit.
The delay also means that MPs are set to next week have their first break from Westminster this year, after previous parliamentary recess periods were cancelled due to the ongoing Brexit deadlock.
However, Brexit talks with Labour will continue on Thursday with the UK government remaining committed to securing an agreement before the European Parliament elections at the end of May.
One proposal under consideration by ministers is to bring forward the legislation for the withdrawal agreement in the coming days and weeks and allow MPs to amend it in an attempt to secure cross-party agreement.
Asked about the proposal on Wednesday, May’s official spokesman said that while it was “technically possible” to do this, the government was not committing to doing so at this stage.