October 20, 2019 / 9:35 AM / a month ago

EU plays for time as Johnson spars with UK parliament on Brexit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union will play for time rather than rush to decide on British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reluctant request to delay Brexit again, diplomats with the bloc said after a 15-minute meeting on Sunday.

Johnson’s plan to put his Brexit withdrawal deal to the UK parliament on Saturday was derailed after lawmakers voted to withhold a decision on the deal, a move that forced him to seek a third postponement of Britain’s departure from the bloc. Britain’s exit had been envisaged for Oct. 31.

From the EU’s point of view, extension options range from just an additional month until the end of November to half a year or longer.

At a rare Sunday meeting of ambassadors of the 27 states that will make up the EU after Brexit, the diplomats decided to forward Johnson’s deal to the European Parliament for its required approval.

“We’re looking for more clarity toward the end of the week, hoping that by that time we will also see how things develop in London,” one senior EU diplomat said.

Another one added the meeting was very brief: “No questions, no discussion. We are waiting.”

The chairman of European Union leaders, Donald Tusk, said on Saturday he had received the extension request and he would now take “a few days” to consult EU capitals.

Prime Minister Antti Rinne of Finland, which currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, said on Sunday that it would be “sensible” to agree to a third delay.

While weary of the tortuous Brexit process, EU leaders are keen to avoid a disorderly no-deal Brexit and are unlikely to reject the request. They hope the deal can eventually be approved in London. Johnson is now expected to put his exit deal to the UK parliament in the next few days.

“The political ball is in Westminster,” said a third senior EU diplomat. “Let’s see how things pan out over the next few days.”

If developments in the UK parliament start to make a no-deal Brexit at the end of the month look unavoidable, the EU would be likely to step in, diplomats said. EU leaders might end up agreeing any new Brexit date at an emergency summit around next weekend.

HOW LONG

The EU 27 have already agreed twice to postpone Brexit from the original deadline of March 29 this year. However, frustration has mounted over the distraction of a process that has dragged on for 3-1/2 years since Britons voted out.

The bloc has said the second extension would be the last one. French President Emmanuel Macron has been the most outspoken and impatient among the 27’s leaders on the issue.

“We should stop believing that it’s in everybody’s interest to put everything on hold for six months and everything will be better after that,” French Minister for European Affairs Amelie de Montchalin told French weekly newspaper Journal du Dimanche.

“Political uncertainty has negative consequences for millions of families and businesses,” she added in a tweet.

However, the EU 27 might grant a shorter lag of just a month to keep pressure on Britain to approve Johnson’s withdrawal deal with the EU.

“A good and orderly solution is still possible if Boris Johnson now reaches out to parliament to seek a non-partisan solution,” the tabloid BILD cited German economy minister Peter Altmaier as saying on Sunday. “If a delay of a few weeks is necessary I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” he said.

Norbert Rottgen, chairman of the German lower house’s foreign affairs committee, floated a much longer delay.

“(The EU) should now grant a final long one, giving the UK time to sort itself out and to prepare for all possible resolutions including a second referendum. Meanwhile the EU could deal with other pressing issues,” he wrote in a tweet.

A EU supporter waves flags while other demonstrators march as parliament sits on a Saturday for the first time since the 1982 Falklands War, to discuss Brexit in London, Britain, October 19, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

A likely deadline for the EU is shaping up around its next long-term budget from 2021.

Spain’s EU minister deplored the protracted Brexit chaos and recalled a frustrating sense of deja vu for the EU, which had sealed a Brexit deal in 2018 with Britain’s then-premier Theresa May only to then see it voted down thrice in the UK parliament.

“We hope that, as soon as possible, (the UK) will make a definitive decision on its future, be it within the European Union or outside of it,” Marco Aguiriano wrote in the El Mundo daily on Sunday.

Additional reporting by Nikolaeva Maya in Paris, Gavin Jones in Rome, Ludwig Burger in Frankfurt, Niklas Pollard in Stockholm, Jessica Jones in Madrid, Editing by Frances Kerry and Susan Fenton

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