EU leaders and diplomats responded with a mixture of frustration and resignation after the UK parliament decided to delay a vote on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal.
French president Emmanuel Macron requested a “rapid clarification” of the British position when he spoke to Boris Johnson on Saturday afternoon after the House of Commons vote, noting that a delay would be in the interests of neither the UK nor the EU.
The Elysée palace said Mr Macron “shared the need for rapid clarification of the British position on the negotiated and finalised agreement, and said a delay would be in the interests of neither party”.
European leaders, including Mr Macron and outgoing European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, have publicly warned British MPs that they do not want another extension. But they have not ruled one out if it is requested by the British government and a delay looks necessary for the deal to be approved.
“If the parliament feels it needs to take precautions to minimise the risk of a no-deal, that is their decision,” said one diplomat, adding that the EU also wants to ensure a no-deal is avoided. “We are calm — we just have to take these things as they come.”
Manfred Weber, the head of the largest conservative group in the European Parliament, said he regretted the developments in the House of Commons and voiced frustration at another UK impasse.
“We regret that what should have been a day of clarity in the House of Commons, has again resulted in postponement and confusion,” he said. “Even after three and a half years the UK is still unable to give us a clear position on a feasible plan to leave the EU.
“The EU has consistently shown patience and willingness to work for a deal for all Europeans. We now have to wait for the UK government to determine its next steps, and tell us what they want to do next.”
The Commons was expected to vote on Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal in a special sitting on Saturday but MPs instead voted for a motion tabled by backbencher Oliver Letwin to put the vote on hold until all the Brexit implementing legislation has been passed. This means that under the UK’s so-called Benn Act Mr Johnson must now ask for an extension to the Article 50 exit process.
If an extension request comes, EU leaders would not feel any compulsion to respond immediately, said another EU diplomat, arguing that they would want to wait to see what happens in the Commons early next week.
“We can have it on our desks for a while to see where the situation is going,” the diplomat said, adding however that the EU was ultimately likely to agree to an extension request. “I think when push comes to shove they will extend.”
EU ambassadors are set to meet on Sunday to discuss the latest developments, with Donald Tusk, the EU council president, expected to begin consulting leaders on the latest developments next week. Ultimately the council could either choose to convene in an emergency summit to consider a further extension, or grant a request via written procedure.
Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, stressed that unanimity among leaders was required to confirm an extension.
“To date, no request for an extension has been made by the UK government,” he said. “Should that happen, president Tusk will consult with all 27 heads of state [and] government on whether or not we will grant one. An extension can only be granted by unanimity.”
Despite the fresh uncertainty in the UK, ambassadors are expected to endorse the start of the process of ratifying the withdrawal agreement struck on Thursday night.
Jaume Duch, the European Parliament’s spokesperson, said MEPs will discuss the current state of play on Monday in Strasbourg.
The renewed uncertainty about the fate of the withdrawal agreement will create a complicated situation in the parliament, which was expected to vote on whether to ratify the agreement in a plenary session in Strasbourg before the end of this coming week.
“Now we need clarity about the next steps of the UK government,” said an EU diplomat. “If, in accordance with the Letwin amendment, the UK were to ask for an extension, the EU would examine the request in a constructive spirit.”