The premier heads to the European Council meeting in Brussels on Thursday to push a demand her EU counterparts have already said she can’t have until she persuades the U.K. Parliament to support the Brexit deal they struck with her: a one-off, three-month delay to Britain’s departure.
The deadlock over how long to delay the U.K.’s exit from the EU plunges the country deeper into a political crisis that now seems likely to push the Brexit endgame into the final hours before next week’s deadline. Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party, was also slated to travel to Brussels on Thursday to make the case for an alternative to May’s withdrawal plan.
Under pressure from euroskeptic Conservatives, the prime minister formally proposed delaying Britain’s exit from the EU until June 30. But the bloc warned if she can’t persuade members of Parliament to vote for her deal in the next nine days, the choice will be a prolonged extension or leaving without a deal.
In a address to the nation from her 10 Downing Street office on Wednesday, May hinted she could even resign rather than agree to a lengthy postponement that would keep the U.K. in the bloc beyond the middle of the year.
“I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June,” May said. The fact that the U.K. won’t leave the bloc on schedule on March 29 is “a matter of great personal regret for me,” she said. “Of this I am absolutely sure: you the public have had enough," May said. “You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree.”
European Council President Donald Tusk said such a short Brexit extension would only be possible if Parliament agrees to enact the existing divorce deal -- which it’s twice overwhelmingly rejected -- by the existing exit day of March 29, giving May just over a week to convince members of Parliament to change their minds and vote for her plan.
Early signs are that May has repelled MPs she needs to convince. Lisa Nandy, a Labour lawmaker who has previously suggested she could be won over, told ITV’s "Peston" show that "there is absolutely no chance" May will win support after Wednesday’s statement. And Tory rank-and-file lawmaker Phillip Lee told the same show that May’s approach had "backfired."
The EU has already penciled in an emergency summit for next week when it could propose a long extension to the negotiations, but with conditions attached, potentially including ripping up May’s proposal, calling a British election and even a second referendum.
Despite the warnings from Brussels, EU officials said averting a calamitous no-deal split is now the priority. The bloc is very unlikely to push the U.K. out on March 29 with no safety net because a chaotic exit would damage them too, the officials said.
May appeared to have ignored advice from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in making her decision. He told the prime minister in a telephone call on Wednesday morning that the latest end-date for a short extension was May 23, when EU Parliament elections start, according to his spokeswoman, Mina Andreeva.
EU ambassadors in Brussels discussed on Wednesday what the conclusions of Thursday’s summit on Brexit should say, according to a person familiar with the matter. The envoys agreed that the statement will be friendly but tough, the person said, asking not to be named.
EU leaders are likely to be asked to agree the wording of the summit conclusions themselves instead of having a draft prepared by aides in advance. That means it’s likely to be a long night, the person said.
In Parliament on Wednesday, May was accused of reneging on pledges she and her ministers made a week ago. Then, in order to help win crucial votes in Parliament, the government indicated that if the House of Commons hadn’t approved her Brexit deal by now, she’d request a longer extension.
One of the most excoriating critiques during a debate forced by the opposition Labour Party came from the normally mild-mannered former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, a member of her own Conservative Party. He accused her government of "fast running out" of integrity and said May’s question-and-answer session in Parliament on Wednesday "was the worst moment" in his 22 years as an MP.