EU would agree to Brexit delay, says German minister

Daniel Boffey in Brussels
Photograph: Clemens Bilan/EPA

Germany’s economic affairs minister has wholeheartedly backed the option of a Brexit extension beyond 31 October, as the European parliament pulled plans to hold a vote on Boris Johnson’s deal this week.

Peter Altmaier, a key ally of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said he believed a technical extension would be offered to allow extra time for legislation to pass or a longer period to accommodate a general election or second referendum.

“We have already twice agreed to an extension. I have repeatedly said as my own opinion I am not ideologically opposed to extending again a few days or a few weeks if you then get a good solution that excludes a hard Brexit,” Altmaier said.

“If the British are to opt for one of the longer-term options, that is new elections or a new referendum, then it goes without saying that the European Union should do it, for me anyway.”

The likelihood of an extension beyond 31 October increased after the European parliament’s Brexit steering group recommended that a planned vote on the deal, scheduled for Thursday, should be suspended in light of developments in the Commons. The parliament has a veto on any agreement.

Guy Verhofstadt, the EU parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said there needed to be “full ratification in Britain before we do our final vote”. Sources said the Commons would need to complete its third reading of the withdrawal agreement bill before the European parliament would hold its crucial vote to allow the UK to leave with an agreement.

The leader of the Commons, Jacob Rees-Mogg, told MPs the government wanted the legislation to have passed all its stages by the end of Thursday in a move that leaves the European parliament without time to stage its own vote this week.

After this week, the next scheduled sitting of the European parliament is 14 November but parliamentary sources said an extraordinary session could still be held as late as 31 October if necessary. “It is not on the agenda for this week – and it is not going to be added,” the EU source said.

It is understood the European parliament’s leading MEPs had been heavily lobbied by the UK government to hold their vote this week as Downing Street seeks to keep hope alive of leaving by Halloween.

France’s EU affairs minister, Amélie de Montchalin, expressed Paris’s frustration but also its willingness to again extend the UK’s membership of the EU. She said: “What is certain is that we need a yes or a no before October 31. We need clarity. There cannot be a new delay without it being justified.”

David Sassoli, the European parliament’s president, said the EU chamber would “be the final actor to have its say in this matter”.

On Saturday, the Commons voted to withhold its approval until all the legislation relating to the withdrawal agreement bill has been passed. The prime minister subsequently complied with the Benn act by sending three letters on Saturday evening to ask the EU to provide for a delay beyond 31 October.

Alongside an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send under the act, there was an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU, Sir Tim Barrow, and a personal letter from Boris Johnson explaining why Downing Street thought a further delay would be corrosive.

Related: What next for Boris Johnson's Brexit deal?

A spokeswoman for the European commission said the request had been formally received, despite its unconventional “form”.

The spokeswoman added the EU’s ratification processes had been launched in preparation for approval by the Commons but that it was up to London to take the next steps.

“The request to extend article 50 was made by the UK’s permanent representative to the EU,” the spokeswoman said. “President Tusk acknowledged receipt of the request on Saturday and stated that he was now consulting with the EU27, so this form does not change anything.”

Speaking to the German radio station Deutschlandfunk, Altmaier said the onus was on Downing Street to provide clarity on the next steps as soon as possible for Brexit to be possible on 31 October.

“What we need is clarity and we need it quickly,” Altmaier said. “In recent months we have repeatedly taken into account the difficult situation in the UK. At the moment, the hardest part is that we do not know who actually speaks for this country: is it the government or is it the elected parliament? Both represent different positions.

“The government would like to quit on 31 October; parliament has requested a delay. This is a very difficult topic now. We will talk about this with our European partners.”