European Union leaders staved off the threat of the U.K. crashing out of the bloc without a deal next Friday by giving Theresa May an extra two weeks to work out what to do.
At a summit in Brussels on Thursday, the leaders told May that if U.K. lawmakers don’t endorse her Brexit deal next week, she’ll have until April 12 to decide whether to leave without agreement or request a much longer extension. The decision removes the immediate possibility of a no-deal Brexit in seven days’ time.
It also gives May a powerful threat to issue to pro-brexit hardliners in her party: Back the deal or risk being trapped in the EU for much longer. May said she’ll put the unpopular accord back to parliament next week.
More than seven hours of discussion began with May delivering her most extensive pitch yet to the 27 remaining leaders before she was asked to leave the room while they thrashed out their response.
"The cliff edge will be delayed," EU President Donald Tusk said after May accepted the proposal. "I was really sad before our meeting, now I’m much more optimistic."
The pound rose 0.2 percent against the dollar in early trading Friday after falling as much as 1.5 percent during Thursday trading.
EU ElectionsIf May manages to pass a deal which has already suffered two thumping defeats in the House of Commons, the EU will let Britain remain in the bloc until May 22 to complete the formalities. If not, she’ll have to decide whether to seek a longer extension, perhaps until the end of the year, or leave without a deal.
"What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner," May said at a press briefing around midnight. "Tomorrow morning, I will be returning to the U.K. and working hard to build support for getting the deal through."
It was a pivot in May’s strategy. A day earlier she had wielded the risk of a no-deal Brexit to try to get lawmakers onside and attacked lawmakers for standing in her way. The rhetoric went down so badly she came close to apologizing for it after the summit and didn’t mention the alternative of no-deal at all, emphasizing instead that she wants to leave in an orderly fashion.
Leaders were still not convinced that May knows how to get the agreement through Parliament so decided to take the threat of an immediate no-deal exit out of her hands, officials said. The framework they settled on allows time for a new plan to emerge should May lose the vote and then resign, one official said.
On the EU side, one big consideration was the parliamentary election coming up at the end of May. With euroskeptic populists seeking to disrupt the European project, leaders were keen to have Brexit wrapped up before polling day. And failing that, to force the U.K. to stay and fulfill its obligations like the bloc’s other members.
April 12 is the cut off date for the U.K. to decide whether it will take part in the EU elections. May 22 is the last day before voting starts.