The EU will delay its decision on the length of the next Brexit extension until next Monday or Tuesday to take into account the result of a vote on Boris Johnson’s demand for a pre-Christmas general election.
Speaking after a two-hour meeting of ambassadors in Brussels on Friday, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said an “excellent” discussion had concluded without any clear way forward. “No decision,” he said.
It is understood that only the French government stood in the way of the EU granting the three-month extension that Johnson sought in his letter sent last Saturday.
An EU source said the bloc’s offer would now be made on Monday or Tuesday – just 48 hours before the UK is set to leave the EU on 31 October – but that the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, had “no intention” of calling a special summit.
The EU’s delay leaves Jeremy Corbyn with a difficult decision to make. He had said Labour would only vote in favour of a general election if the EU confirmed on Friday that it would grant an extension to 31 January, taking a no-deal Brexit “off the table”.
“There was full agreement on the need for an extension,” an EU source said of the meeting of EU27 ambassadors in Brussels. “There was full agreement to reach a unanimous, consensual EU27 decision. And there was full agreement to aim to take the decision by written procedure … Work will continue over the weekend.”
The diplomatic source added that EU27 diplomats “expected to meet early next week to finalise an agreement”.
A majority of member states want to accept the terms of an extension reluctantly requested by Johnson under which Brexit could be delayed until 31 January with the opportunity to leave earlier if the withdrawal agreement was ratified in Westminster and by the European parliament.
Those terms were due to be signed off on Friday but ran into trouble. “There is one country standing in the way – France,” said a diplomat. “Everyone is very frustrated. They were told that a short extension ran the risk of an accidental no-deal Brexit.”
“It is the French, always the French,” said a second senior diplomat.
Sources suggested that France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was keen to appear helpful to Downing Street and keep the pressure on MPs. On Thursday, France’s EU minister, Amélie de Montchalin, had told RTL radio that clarity over the next steps in London was needed for decisions to be made in “the next hours and days”.
As a result, there remains the possibility that the EU will offer a shorter delay to mid or late November merely to allow time for ratification, although sources suggested that this remained unlikely. “We agreed we all want to avoid a no deal – and a short extension will just raise the possibility,” said an EU source.
By meddling with the terms of the extension request laid out in the Benn act, the prime minister is also placed under a different set of obligations.
If the three months to 31 January is offered, he must agree to it. A different formulation would require parliament to pass a motion endorsing the extension request. Johnson would then need to agree the terms with the EU by 30 October or within 48 hours, depending on which is earlier.