UK’s May to ask EU for Brexit delay; long extension expected

BRUSSELS — Just two days away from a potentially calamitous no-deal Brexit, European Union leaders were moving closer to granting the United Kingdom a new delay — possibly of up to a year — to its departure from the bloc.

British Prime Minister Theresa May headed Wednesday into an emergency EU summit pleading for a second extension until June 30, but indicated she could accept a longer extension as many EU leaders have called for.

“What is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the withdrawal agreement,” May said as she arrived in Brussels. She added she was hopeful it could be as soon as May 22.

Most EU leaders have indicated they could accept such an extension as long as Britain pledges not use it to play an obstructionist course and undermine EU policies.

If there is no deal at Wednesday’s summit, Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU would be Friday.

According to the latest draft conclusions, Britain would be required to act “in a constructive and responsible manner throughout this unique period” of extended withdrawal, and would have to show “sincere cooperation.” It would have to act in “a manner that reflects its situation as a withdrawing member state.”

In Berlin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU had “expectations” of Britain so that EU institutions can continue functioning “seamlessly.”

The issue came up after some British Conservative politicians threatened to become obstructionist. One of them, Mark Francois, said that if the U.K. remained in the bloc, “then in return we will become a Trojan Horse within the EU.”

Britain hopes it won’t be a member for too long, though.

EU Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker were already honing strategies with incoming leaders hours ahead of the evening summit.

May was to have a pre-summit meeting with Tusk before explaining her delay request to the leaders, who will then discuss their next move.

In case no deal materializes Wednesday, Britain would crash out of the bloc on Friday with no deal regulating the departure, unless it cancels Brexit independently. A drastic cliff-edge exit would bring huge costs to businesses and trade across the English Channel and be very cumbersome to travelers as it would likely hit airports, ports, tariff rules and standard regulations overnight.

EU countries, especially France, have become increasingly exasperated with the political division and uncertainty in Britain about a way forward.

The bloc’s leaders have tried to help May over two years of negotiations, even after she missed her hand-picked Brexit departure date on March 29 because of a parliamentary revolt.

Seeking support from European heavyweights Tuesday, May flew to Berlin and Paris to plead for good terms with Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been taking a tough stance ahead of the Brussels summit.

May’s charm offensive appeared to bear fruit with an official in Macron’s office saying that France was ready to accept a new delay.

While Macron still has a long list of conditions, it was a notable shift in France’s tone. The reason for the change was unclear, though concerns have been growing about how badly a hard Brexit would hit the French economy. France was also encouraged by May’s outreach last week to Britain’s political opposition to find a compromise, and Macron may have been swayed in part by a meeting with the Irish prime minister.

Among conditions France is now setting to agree to a new delay: A “credible prospect” of some kind of solution to the British political deadlock; a promise that Britain won’t keep asking for more delays; and guarantees that Britain would not be involved in future EU decisions while its Brexit drama is playing out.

“The longer the extension might be, the more guarantees are needed,” the French official said, speaking on condition he not be named in keeping with presidential policy.

Every British initiative to get a deal so far has floundered. Several days of talks between May’s Conservative government and the main opposition Labour Party aimed at finding a compromise have failed to produce a breakthrough. Labour favors a softer Brexit than the government has proposed, and wants to retain a close economic relationship with the bloc.

The two sides said they would resume their discussions after Wednesday’s EU summit.

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