EU could grant Britain short Brexit delay

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union would be ready to approve a short Brexit delay should Britain need more time to ensure parliamentary ratification of their divorce agreement, three EU officials said on Tuesday.

FILE PHOTO: A European Union flag is seen outside the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium November 14, 2018. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/File Photo

EU leaders have increasingly pushed British Prime Minister Theresa May for an extension of the negotiating period as they see no majority in her divided parliament to approve the Brexit deal, and want to avoid the disruption of an abrupt split.

May on Tuesday offered the possibility of a short delay, drawing a largely positive response from Brussels.

“If a request for a delay of the Brexit date is submitted, it would be considered favourably,” a senior EU official said. “An extension of a couple of months would be relatively straightforward.”

Philippe Lamberts, a Belgian member of the European Parliament’s group dealing with Brexit, said a no-deal divorce was “utterly irresponsible to even consider.”

“If the Withdrawal Agreement fails to gain support in the House of Commons on March 12th, then the UK must ask for an extension to Article 50 with a credible plan for holding a people’s vote on the final deal that includes an option to remain,” he said of the time limit for divorce negotiations that expires on March 29.

Another EU official said it was “good to see rational arguments being heard” in Britain. A third person, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this would be “in line” with EU thinking on how to get to a final Brexit deal.

EU and UK officials were continuing talks in Brussels to give Britain more assurances on the deal and make it acceptable to parliament.

But two national diplomats in Brussels stressed there was still no breakthrough on substance.

“She might have opened the door to postponing no-deal but not brought a deal any closer,” one said.

The EU’s executive Commission has said talks must end in time for a March 21-22 summit, when the bloc’s national leaders could endorse any amendments to the Brexit accord.

It was voted down in January by the British parliament over opposition to the so-called backstop, an insurance policy to avoid customs checks for goods on the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.

The EU hopes Britain’s Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will present in Brussels later on Tuesday new wording around the backstop he would need agreed to change his advice that it risked trapping Britain in EU trade rules indefinitely.

The summit, to be held a week before March 29, could also agree a short extension, giving May time to take the deal back to parliament for approval.

Any extension would need to be approved by all 27 other EU leaders. A limit for any delay has emerged for the bloc around the European Parliament elections on May 23-26.

The new EU Parliament will start convening from early July, meaning any Brexit delay beyond the end of June would require Britain to take part in the election, something May spoke against on Tuesday.

Additional reporting and writing by Gabriela Baczynska; Editing by Janet Lawrence