At 11.20 p.m. local time, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, finally announced that 27 EU leaders had agreed unanimously on a response to the British Prime Minister’s request to delay Brexit and avoid a chaotic split on March 29. And to everyone’s surprise, they offered her two options.
First, a short delay, giving the UK until May 22 to get its affairs in order before leaving the EU. But that option is only available if lawmakers in the House of Commons approve May’s overall withdrawal deal next week.
Alternatively, option two kicks in if May loses the third “meaningful” vote on her deal. That allows the UK to stay in the EU until April 12, at which point it must make a choice: Take part in the European parliamentary elections in May and seek a longer delay to Brexit, or don’t. Should it come to it, the implications of that decision will be the next big Brexit bust-up.
It all seems quite simple. But it’s hard to explain how tense things felt in the EU capital on Thursday. As a promised 6 p.m. press conference got pushed back, all that was clear was that nothing was clear at all.
Earlier in the day, European Council President Donald Tusk had put on the table a plan for a short extension to the Brexit process — until May 22, contingent upon the House of Commons ratifying the withdrawal agreement.
Across Brussels, the mood was gloomy. No one outside Theresa May’s inner circle believed that the withdrawal deal’s prospects in Westminster were much better than those of a snowflake in Tusk’s special corner of hell. In the eyes of many here, that made a no-deal crash-out more likely than ever before.
On the sidelines of the summit, EU officials were openly discussing what would happen when, not if, May’s deal failed again. Some were suggesting inviting British lawmakers from across the political divide to Brussels to seek a cross-party path forward. There was even talk of offering a longer delay if the UK held a general election or, potentially worse, a second referendum. No one could possibly know how any of the scenarios would play out.