The European Union could approve Britain’s request for a short delay to Brexit but only if U.K. MPs next week approve the withdrawal deal they have twice rejected, European Council President Donald Tusk said Wednesday.
With nine days to go before Britain is due to leave the bloc, the country is gripped by uncertainty about how to proceed, and Tusk’s statement was received as an ultimatum to lawmakers to get behind May’s deal.
“I believe a short extension will be possible, but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” Tusk told reporters.
May told her country in a televised address from Downing Street late Wednesday that she was still “determined” to deliver Brexit and pull Britain through its worst political crisis in a generation.
“You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with this. I agree. I am on your side,” May said, adding that she was requesting a delay until June 30 with “great personal regret.”
Lawmakers have twice resoundingly rejected May’s agreement, and a third vote the premier hoped to hold this week was canceled by the House of Commons speaker on the ground that the same vote could not be held again.
May now heads to Brussels for an EU leaders summit Thursday and Friday, where she will hope to secure a possible addition to her agreement that will let her put it to a vote next week.
The pound fell sharply against the euro during the day, reflecting fears that Britain could crash out without any agreement at all.
Exactly 1,000 days on from Britain’s seismic 2016 vote to split from the other EU nations, the country is unclear about the path ahead.
May said any postponement beyond the end of June would undermine voters’ trust.
“It is high time we made a decision” on leaving, May said in her address.
However, the European Commission advised EU leaders that it would be preferable to either have a shorter delay to May 23 — when voting begins in European Parliament elections — or a much longer one, until at least the end of 2019.
A spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel welcomed London’s “clear request” and said she would “make every effort” to bring about an agreement at the Brussels summit.
But her foreign minister, Heiko Maas of the junior coalition partner Social Democrats, said May’s letter “only pushes the solution further down the road”.
And in Paris, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian had a tough message.
“A situation in which Mrs. May is unable to deliver sufficient guarantees on the credibility of her strategy at the European Council meeting would lead to the request being refused and a preference for a no deal,” he said.
Country in crisis
The British Parliament has been deadlocked for months over Brexit, with MPs unable to decide how to implement the referendum result, and voters themselves are also sharply divided.
But Britain is now in crisis, facing the potentially catastrophic prospect of leaving its biggest trading partner after 46 years with no arrangements in place.
May had reluctantly accepted that a delay to Brexit was needed, and told MPs Wednesday she had written to Tusk.
“Some argue that I am making the wrong choice and I should ask for a longer extension to the end of the year or beyond, to give more time for politicians to argue over the way forward,” May told Britons in her special message.
“That would mean asking you to vote in European elections nearly three years after our country voted to leave. What kind of message would that send?”
Elections for the European Parliament will be held at the end of May.
In her letter, May said she intended to bring her deal back to the Commons “as soon as possible,” arguing that if it passed, she would need the delay to implement the treaty.
If the text is rejected a third time, May told lawmakers earlier on Wednesday that Parliament would have to decide what happened next.
“As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than June 30,” she told lawmakers, in comments interpreted as a hint about her own future.
May’s team will try to engage senior members of the main opposition Labor Party, hoping to bring enough of its members on side to pull her deal through.