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March 20, 2019

Brexit delay must be ‘useful’ to get EU nod, says Barnier

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March 20, 2019

BRUSSELS: The European Union will need to know “the reason and the usefulness” of any UK request for a delay to Brexit before deciding whether to grant an extension, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has cautioned.

Prime Minister Theresa May is due to write by the end of today (Wednesday) to European Council president Donald Tusk, setting out her proposal to extend the two-year process of negotiating withdrawal under the EU’s Article 50 rules.

But a delay in Brexit beyond the scheduled date of March 29 needs the approval of all 27 remaining member states at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. Barnier told a news conference in Brussels: “It is our duty to ask whether this extension would be useful because an extension will be something which would extend uncertainty and uncertainty costs.”

He warned that the UK would need to propose “something new” to justify a lengthy extension, he said. Unconfirmed reports suggest that May could ask for a lengthy extension to Article 50, with the option of an early break in May or June if she manages to get her Withdrawal Agreement through Parliament.

But Barnier appeared to pour cold water on this possibility, telling a reporter: “You said both short and long. Well, it’s either one or the other, isn’t it?” He added: “My feeling is ... a longer extension needs to be linked to something new. There needs to be a new event or a new political process.”

If the EU agrees an extension, Brexit will be delayed by the passage of a statutory instrument through both Houses of Parliament removing the date of March 29 from the legislation. MPs will be given an opportunity in the House of Commons on Monday to debate how the process should go forward.

At a meeting of cabinet in Downing Street, May voiced her “absolute determination” that MPs should have another chance to vote on her Brexit deal, despite the bombshell intervention of the Commons Speaker.

John Bercow provoked uproar at Westminster on Monday when he ruled that the government cannot bring the Prime Minister’s deal back for a third “meaningful vote” unless there were substantial changes.

However, in the course of a 90-minute discussion at the weekly meeting of the cabinet in Downing Street, May made clear she wanted MPs to have another vote “as soon as possible”.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “What you can see from the Prime Minister and her colleagues is an absolute determination to find a way in which Parliament could vote for the UK to leave the European Union with a deal. The Prime Minister has been very clear throughout that she wants that to happen as soon as possible.”

Nevertheless, there was said to be concern among some ministers that Brexit appeared to be slipping away. The Leader of the House Andrea Leadsom is understood to have told the meeting: “This used to be the cabinet that would deliver Brexit and now from what I’m hearing it’s not.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Brexit was in a state of “flux” and that EU leaders will “try to react” to whatever May proposes on Thursday. Merkel appeared bemused by Bercow’s decision to block a fresh vote on the basis of a convention dating back to 1604.

Speaking in Berlin, she said: “I’ll concede that I wasn’t actively aware of the British Parliament’s rules of procedure from the 17th century, so I took note of this with interest yesterday.”

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