EU moves toward Brexit delay as UK PM seeks election to break impasse

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A handout picture released by the UK Parliament shows members of parliament crowding the benches and the aisle listening to Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson, right, speak after the results of the vote on the program motion proposing a timetable for the passage of the Brexit Withdrawl Agreement Bill in the House of Commons in London on Tuesday. — AFP

LONDON — EU leaders considered on Wednesday whether to give Britain a three-month Brexit extension, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that if they do so he would call an election by Christmas.

Britain appears closer than ever to resolving its 3 1/2 year Brexit conundrum, with Johnson having agreed a deal with the EU last week and secured an early signal of support for it from parliament.

But there are still plenty of hurdles left, and Johnson's ability to deliver on a "do or die" pledge to get Britain out of the EU by Oct. 31 is in doubt, after parliament rejected a three-day timetable to enact his agreement.

European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter he was recommending that EU leaders back a delay, which Johnson says he does not want but was forced by parliament to request.

European officials said the most likely scenario was that the bloc would grant a three-month delay, with Britain permitted to leave sooner if it could enact legislation faster. There was also a chance that some EU countries, notably France, could demand a shorter extension, possibly of just days or weeks.

Johnson's spokesman said that if the EU offers a delay until the end of January there would need to be an election in Britain, and this could be held before Christmas.

Johnson paused the bill that would implement the agreement he reached with the other members of the EU, after dramatic votes on Tuesday in which parliament accepted the deal in principle but rejected the three-day timetable to enact it.

The government argued a tight schedule was necessary to meet next week's deadline but lawmakers said they needed more time.

It is now for the leaders of the 27 member states to decide whether the Oct. 31 deadline should be pushed back.

"The most likely outcome is an extension until Jan. 31, as requested by London, with the possibility of Britain getting out earlier, providing it finishes its legal processes," said an EU diplomat involved in Brexit discussions. "Basically as soon as Britain is ready itself, it can go."

The one big uncertainty is whether France will agree. A source at President Emmanuel Macron's office said late on Tuesday that Paris was ready to grant an additional few days to facilitate the British parliament's vote but opposed any extension beyond that. On Wednesday, French officials stuck to that view, despite Tusk's recommendation for a longer delay.

"The additional delay will be a few days, a few weeks maybe, but not up to January as some people are saying, that’s just not possible," Pieyre-Alexandre Anglade, a member of the French parliament who handles European affairs for Macron's party, said.

Any extension must be agreed unanimously among the EU 27. They have already agreed twice to postpone Brexit from the original deadline of March 29 this year. Both times, the French complained but eventually relented.

A second EU official said the ambassadors of the EU27 would meet in Brussels at 5:30 p.m. (1530 GMT) on Wednesday to consider Tusk's recommendation and his proposal to seek their leaders' consensus by "written procedure". An agreement is not likely to be reached on Wednesday, the official said.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who is in favour of a three-month extension, told parliament in Dublin that if there is no consensus among the 27's leaders they may have an emergency summit next Monday or even as soon as Friday.

"My bags are always packed for Brussels and packed they are again," Varadkar said.

Johnson confounded some of his critics by emerging last week with a deal with the EU, which differs from an agreement reached by his predecessor, Theresa May, mainly over how it handles the land border of British-ruled Northern Ireland.

May had agreed to apply some EU rules across all of Britain unless a new arrangement could be found to keep the Irish border open. Johnson would effectively create a new border in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland to apply EU rules while the rest of the United Kingdom goes its own way.

That has cost him the support of a Northern Irish party that had propped up his minority government, but could unlock the support of parliament that eluded May.

In the latest day of Brexit drama in Britain's Westminster seat of power on Tuesday, lawmakers handed Johnson the first major parliamentary victory of his premiership by signalling their support for his deal in an early legislative hurdle.

But that was overshadowed just minutes later when lawmakers defeated him on his timetable. Johnson had hoped to make the delay request unnecessary by passing the Brexit law within days.

Johnson has suggested he would push for a new election, campaigning on a platform to "get Brexit done", if the EU agrees the full three-month delay that lawmakers forced him to request.

Johnson cannot however call an election without the support of the opposition Labour Party, which has suggested it will support one only if the Brexit deadline is extended beyond election day. — Reuters


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