LONDON – The United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Theresa May has written on Wednesday to the European Union to ask for an extension to the Brexit negotiation period until June 30 to give her more time to secure backing for her withdrawal deal in parliament, which has twice rejected her current proposal.
May in her letter to the European Council’s president Donald Tusk laid the blame for the extension on lawmakers and the Speaker of the House of Commons, the UK’s lower parliamentary chamber, where her deal has met an impasse.
“You will be aware that before the House of Commons rejected the deal for a second time on 12 March, I warned in a speech in Grimsby that the consequences of failing to endorse the deal were unpredictable and potentially deeply unpalatable,” May said.
“The House of Commons did not vote in favor of the deal,” she said.
Lawmakers later passed an amendment compelling May to request an extension to the negotiation period, which had been due to wrap up by March 29, the official Brexit date set by Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the mechanism to leave the bloc.
But May had the intention to bring the deal back to the Commons for a third attempt. This plan was scuppered when John Bercow, the speaker, drew on a 400-year-old guideline preventing a government from pressing lawmakers to vote repeatedly on the same policy unless it contained substantial changes.
“This position has made it impossible in practice to call a further vote in advance of the European Council,” she said in reference to the EU leaders summit scheduled for March 21-22. “However it remains my intention to bring the deal back to the House.”
She said in the letter that it was unlikely to be ratified by March 29 and therefore asked for an extension to Article 50 until June 30.
The conservative PM said she thought the extension did not mean that the UK would have to run in the European Parliament elections slated for May 22.
May’s two attempts to push her Conservative Party minority government’s withdrawal agreement through the House of Commons, the lower chamber, have failed – the first by a historic majority and the second by the fourth-largest majority in parliament’s history.
In a thinly veiled warning to hardline members of the Conservative Party, who by and large oppose the government’s Brexit plan, May warned after her second defeat that failure to back her deal could result in an extended delay that could ultimately see the UK take part in the European elections and could also lead to no Brexit at all.
The EU’s leaders have said they would only ratify the extensions if the UK government included fresh proposals. All 27 remaining EU states will vote on the proposed extension.
France has already said it would be willing to veto a delay only if it had an “objective and strategy.”
The announcement that May would only seek a brief extension, then, could raise eyebrows in Brussels.
Speaking to German radio on Wednesday morning, the European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker said he did not believe that a specific date for the delay would be agreed on during a European Council summit taking place on March 21-22.
“My impression today at 8.15 am is that this week we will not conclude anything, but rather we will have to meet once again next week,” he said.
May’s next moves depend on how the EU responds to her request.
On March 14, Tusks said he would ask EU leaders at the summit to get behind a long Brexit extension.
Anti-Brexit leaders in the UK, however, have accused her of trying to appease hardline members of her own party.
“The question is how long the so-called moderates in her own party are going to allow this pandering to the hardliners to continue,” Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister and leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, said on Twitter.
May has struggled to please pro-Brexit backbenchers in her own ranks, who favor a harder withdrawal from the bloc, as well as the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up her executive.
The UK electorate narrowly voted to leave in a 2016 referendum, although voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland backed remain.