EU Keeps Boris Johnson Waiting Over Length of Brexit Extension

Ian Wishart and Alex Morales

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The European Union left Boris Johnson hanging on Wednesday night as officials in Brussels debated whether to grant him a third extension to the Brexit process.

EU ambassadors meeting in the Belgian capital agreed that they should accept the British prime minister’s request for more time but couldn’t settle on how long he will get, according to officials familiar with the discussions. The French are pushing for a tight deadline of Nov. 15 while many other countries want to give the U.K. the three months it has asked for. Ambassadors resolved to reach a decision when they meet again Friday.

Johnson was forced by U.K. law to request a Brexit extension on Saturday after he failed to win the backing of lawmakers in Westminster in time for the U.K. to leave as planned on Oct. 31. Yet French President Emmanuel Macron’s stance may ultimately help the British premier to pressure MPs into backing his calls for a fast-track approval process.

Macron had suggested he is against another extension, potentially forcing Britain out of the EU without the safety net of a deal next week -- though he made the same threats last time the issue was up for discussion so no one in Brussels thinks he’ll follow through with it.

Read More: How Businesses Are Preparing for Brexit, Deal or No Deal

All the same, Johnson is playing up the French stance in his own lobbying efforts. On Wednesday he pointed to Macron’s threats in his talks with opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, though Corbyn is still resisting calls for an accelerated process.

A short extension to Nov. 15 could help Johnson to concentrate minds in Parliament as MPs concerned about a no-deal departure rally to pass his deal. A longer extension opens the way for a general election before Brexit is delivered -- though there are divisions in both main parties over the timing.

The reality among officials in Brussels is that no one wants to be blamed for triggering a chaotic rupture with the U.K., and no one believes that Macron is ready to be yet either. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said the EU will keep providing extensions to avoid the risk of a no-deal Brexit.

“There’s no chance that we don’t give them a chance,” Borissov said in a TV interview. “We’ll write ‘postpone’, and ‘postpone’ and ‘postpone’, and we’ll keep on like that for another 90 to 100 years.”

Johnson on Tuesday won approval in the House of Commons for the general principles of his Brexit deal -- the first time the lower chamber has signaled it will vote for an agreement to take the U.K. out of the EU. But 15 minutes later, the same members of Parliament rejected his accelerated timetable for pushing the legislation through Parliament in time for the current Oct. 31 deadline.

That’s left the U.K. waiting on the EU decision, with the government stepping up preparations for a no-deal departure. Johnson on Wednesday canceled a scheduled appearance on Thursday before a panel of key lawmakers citing the need to focus on Brexit.

Since the votes, Johnson has had phone calls with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk. According to his office, he’s reiterated his message that Britain “should” leave the bloc on Oct. 31.

“I think it would be still very much in the best interests of this country and democracy to get Brexit done by Oct. 31,” Johnson told the House of Commons on Wednesday. Chancellor of the Exchequer Sajid Javid said in an ITV interview that the government is working to that deadline still, even if Parliament has “to sit on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, sit every hour of the day.”

But if the EU offers the requested extension, Johnson is obliged by law to accept it.

If the EU does grant an extension to the end of Jan. 31, the U.K. will likely be headed for an early general election. Parliament has twice rejected attempts by Johnson to force a national ballot, but Corbyn has repeatedly said that once a no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31 has been ruled out, Labour will be ready to let him dissolve Parliament.

Johnson told the Commons on Tuesday that if forced into a lengthy extension to the Brexit deadline, he’d seek again to call an early election; and the Times reports he’s ready to do so on Thursday or Monday.

--With assistance from Viktoria Dendrinou, Nikos Chrysoloras and Jonathan Stearns.

To contact the reporters on this story: Ian Wishart in Brussels at iwishart@bloomberg.net;Alex Morales in London at amorales2@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at bsills@bloomberg.net, Edward Evans

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