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EU debates Brexit delay as Johnson eyes election

This article is more than 12 months old

Bloc to decide on how long a delay to grant Britain

BRUSSELS European leaders were deciding whether to postpone Brexit and for how long yesterday, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson's eyes turned towards a snap general election.

In tense parliamentary votes on Tuesday, Mr Johnson won preliminary backing for the divorce deal he agreed with the EU, which would have seen Britain leave the bloc on Oct 31.

But in a fresh twist to the divorce saga, MPs also rejected his bid to curtail parliamentary scrutiny of the bill and rush it through in a matter of days.

European Council President Donald Tusk has recommended that EU's 27 other member states grant a flexible extension until Jan 31, 2020 - to be cut short if Britain ratifies the deal before then.

But the decision on how long a prolongation will last will fall to member state leaders, many of whom would prefer a shorter delay to keep the pressure on Westminster to approve the deal quickly.

Ireland's prime minister, Mr Leo Varadkar, told Mr Tusk in a call that he supports the Jan 31 date, but German and, especially, French officials are talking in terms of a much shorter timeline.

"If it's a question of pushing back the date by two or three weeks, to give MPs in London a chance to ratify, then it's not really a problem," German foreign minister Heiko Maas told RTL television.

"If it's a question of pushing Brexit back until the end of January, we'd need to know why. What's going to happen in the interval and will there be elections in Great Britain?"

France's minister for European affairs, Ms Amelie de Montchalin, said: "At the end of the week we'll see whether a purely technical extension of a few days is justified, to allow the British parliament to finish its procedure."

Mr Tusk wants the EU leaders to approve the Jan 31 extension "by written procedure", but - officials said - if the members' positions are far apart an emergency summit could be held on Monday next week.

As it stands, without their unanimous agreement, Britain is due to crash out of the EU in eight days' time.

On Tuesday, Mr Johnson told MPs that if parliament decided to "delay everything until January or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the government continue with this".

He said: "We will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election - let's get Brexit done."

A three-month delay would give time to hold a general election before the New Year - though calling the vote would require the support of two-thirds of MPs.

The opposition Labour Party has spurned two previous chances to call an election.

The Britain Elects poll aggregator puts the Conservatives on 35 per cent, Labour on 25 per cent, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats on 18 per cent, the Brexit Party on 11 per cent and the Greens on 4 per cent.

Polling expert John Curtice told BBC radio that the polls are moving in favour of Mr Johnson's Conservatives - who are 33 seats short of a majority.

"If that were to be replicated in the ballot box, it should give them an overall majority, maybe around 20 or so" seats.

In a June 2016 referendum, 52 per cent of voters in the UK backed leaving the EU. - AFP