May wants UK out of EU at ‘earliest opportunity’, says minister
EU leaders are expected to offer the PM an extended delay to Brexit at a summit in Brussels.
Ministers remain determined to take Britain out of the EU at the “earliest opportunity”, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said, as Brussels appeared poised to grant a lengthy delay to Britain’s departure.
Theresa May meets the leaders of the remaining EU 27 later on Wednesday to press her case for a further extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process to June 30 to allow her more time to get a deal through Parliament.
But amid increasing frustration among EU leaders, European Council president Donald Tusk is recommending a longer delay of up to a year, with an opportunity to leave before then if a deal is agreed.
However the prospect of an extended delay has infuriated many Conservative MPs, already angry that the UK has missed its original departure date of March 29.
In the Commons on Tuesday, 97 Tory MPs voted against a motion backing Mrs May’s call for an extension which only passed with the support of opposition MPs.
Mr Barclay insisted the Prime Minister did not want to see a lengthy delay, which was why the Government was asking only for an extension to the end of June.
He said the UK could still leave before that date if it got an agreement through Parliament in time and that ministers were committed to leaving at the “earliest opportunity”.
“I don’t want to see a long extension. The Prime Minister doesn’t want to see a long extension. That is why the request today is to June 30 in order that we can leave as soon as possible,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.
Mr Barclay however sidestepped questions as to whether Mrs May could remain in office if the EU insisted on a longer delay, saying it was the failure of MPs to support a deal which had handed the initiative back to Brussels.
“That is a consequence of Parliament, not the Government. The Government has agreed a deal with the EU. It is Parliament that has forced this on the Government,” he said.
Mr Tusk, in a letter to the leaders of the remaining EU27, said there was “little reason to believe” that the ratification of Mrs May’s beleaguered Brexit deal could be completed by the end of June.
He called for the European Council to discuss an alternative, longer extension, such as a “flexible extension” lasting “as long as necessary and no longer than one year”.
Mr Tusk wrote: “The flexibility would allow to terminate the extension automatically, as soon as both sides have ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
“The UK would be free to leave whenever it is ready. And the EU27 would avoid repeated Brexit summits.
“Importantly, a long extension would provide more certainty and predictability by removing the threat of constantly shifting cliff-edge dates.
“Furthermore, in the event of a continued stalemate, such a longer extension would allow the UK to rethink its Brexit strategy.”
Mr Tusk also warned that “neither side should be allowed to feel humiliated at any stage in this difficult process”.
On Tuesday, Mrs May staged a whistle-stop tour of European capitals for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin to prepare the ground for another potentially difficult meeting in Brussels.
The unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining EU states is needed to avoid a no-deal Brexit on the scheduled date of April 12.
EU leaders will gather for talks with European Parliament president Antonio Tajani on Wednesday evening, before hearing from Mrs May.
They will then meet for dinner without her to agree a response to the UK’s extension request.
A press conference with Mrs May is likely to be held after the summit, and the PM is expected to update MPs on Thursday.
Meanwhile in Westminster, Labour claimed the Government had not yet made a “clear shift” in its position in cross-party talks designed to break the impasse. Discussions will resume on Thursday.