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EU leaders open to Brexit delay, but May faces storm at home

Businesses and economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause huge disruptions to the economies of both Britain and the EU.


BRUSSELS—European Union leaders meeting in Brussels said Thursday they were likely to grant Britain a Brexit delay if the U.K. government can win parliamentary support next week for its EU divorce deal, though it may be shorter than the June 30 date the U.K. has asked for.

Across the Channel, however, there were few signs that Prime Minister Theresa May’s unpopular Brexit deal was gaining in popularity among British lawmakers. May angered many with a televised speech late Wednesday, blaming a divided Parliament for an impasse that has left Britain eight days away from crashing out of the bloc with no divorce deal. One lawmaker slammed her remarks as “toxic.”

As she arrived in Brussels to lobby her European partners to extend the Brexit date from March 29 until June 30, May did not rule out taking Britain out of the EU with no deal if the divorce agreement she reached with the EU in November is rejected again by British lawmakers.

Businesses and economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause huge disruptions to the economies of both Britain and the EU.

“What matters is that we recognize that Brexit is the decision of the British people. We need to deliver on that,” May said. “I sincerely hope that will be with a negotiated deal.”

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 unless the bloc grants an extension. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that among the 27 other EU leaders “there is an openness to an (Brexit) extension across the board.”

“Nobody wants no deal here,” Varadkar told reporters.

Lithuania’s president, Dalia Grybauskaite, said it was likely “we will grant (an extension), but what exact timing, that’s still under discussion.” She said the bloc would likely set a late-May deadline—“or (a) long extension, and in that case the UK will have to organize elections.”

She said the key problem was the May 23-26 European Union elections. Britain so far has no plans to take part in the vote because it hopes to leave the bloc before the new parliament is in session.

May’s deal has been roundly rejected twice by the U.K. Parliament, and EU leaders want evidence that May can convince lawmakers to change their minds next week.

That looked more uncertain after her speech Wednesday in which May told a Brexit-weary public: “You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side.”

May accused lawmakers of “infighting, ”political games“ and ”arcane procedural rows,“ but acknowledged no personal role in creating the political impasse.

Many U.K. legislators, including some from her own Conservative Party, condemned the tone of her speech.

Anna Soubry, of the breakaway Independent Group, described it in a tweet as the “most dishonest and divisive statement from any Prime Minister.” David Lammy of the opposition Labour Party called the speech “sinister,” while Conservative Sam Gyimah called May’s comments “toxic” and a “low blow.”

But Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said May was tapping into the public’s exasperated mood.

“In fairness, what she is actually saying is that we have to implement the results of a democratic referendum,” he told the BBC. “That’s the challenge.”

May’s opponents, and EU officials, say her refusal to budge on her rejected deal is pushing Britain to the brink of a catastrophic no-deal scenario.

From the EU side, German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to work “until the last hour” to try and ensure that Britain doesn’t leave without a deal, even though her government has enacted emergency measures to deal with such a scenario just in case.

“We will, despite these measures we have taken, work until the last day—I will say until the last hour—to ensure that this emergency planning doesn’t come into effect,” she told German lawmakers.

But Merkel warned the EU wants to ensure the legitimacy of the May elections to the European Parliament. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has said Britain should be out before May 23 or be obliged to take part in the Europe-wide vote.

EU officials fear that citizens unable to vote could launch legal action at the European Court of Justice, or that businesses unhappy with legislation adopted by the new parliament might challenge its legitimacy.

Should May fail to get her Brexit deal passed, EU leaders could be forced to meet again next week with a much longer extension a possibility.

May said Parliament faced a “final choice” between her deal, a no-deal departure and cancelling Brexit.

But what remains unclear is exactly what happens next.

Hunt said he did not know if May’s Brexit deal will be brought back to Parliament next week, as he warned of “extreme unpredictability” if the issue is not resolved.

U.K. opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was also meeting senior EU officials in Brussels, trying to persuade them that Parliament can find an alternative to May’s rejected Brexit plan. Corbyn said he was “looking for alternatives and building a majority in Parliament that can agree on a future constructive economic relationship with the European Union.”

—Raf Casert and Samuel Petrequin in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Danica Kirka in London and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.

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