May's Brexit summit: what happened in Brussels?

Daniel Boffey in Brussels


What did Theresa May want?

The prime minister was seeking agreement by the EU’s 27 leaders on a “technical extension” of article 50, pushing Brexit day back to 30 June, in the event that the Commons ratifies the withdrawal agreement on the third time of asking. The extra time would be needed to pass the necessary legislation.

Related: 'One last chance': what the UK papers say about Brexit delay

How did that go?

May’s appeal to the heads of state and government was described by sources as “90 minutes of nothing”. She was unable to offer any answers as to how a no-deal Brexit would be avoided if the deal was rejected again. The withdrawal agreement has, so far, gone down by 230 votes and 149 votes: the first and fourth highest defeats faced by any government in the Commons.

After May left the room, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, commented to his fellow leaders that he had gone into the summit with the belief that there was a 10% chance of the withdrawal agreement being ratified. “After listening to her, I now think 5%,” Macron said. The European council president, Donald Tusk, responded: “That’s a bit optimistic.”

What did the EU do?

The leaders imposed a new Brexit timeline on the prime minister to avoid a possible accidental no-deal scenario next Friday – 29 March.

Under the deal agreed by May, Britain will stay a member state until 12 April if the withdrawal agreement is rejected by MPs. The government will be able to seek a longer extension up to 22 May if it can “indicate a way forward” and agrees to hold European elections.

“The 12 April is the new 29 March,” an EU official said. Tusk said it left all options open: “The UK government will still have a choice of a deal, no-deal, a long extension or revoking article 50.”

In the unlikely event that May does win the support of the Commons when the Brexit deal goes to MPs again on Tuesday, the UK will stay a member state until 22 May to allow necessary withdrawal legislation to be passed.

How did Theresa May respond?

She agreed to the new timeline. The prime minister said the EU’s decision left MPs with a clear choice: either they back her deal next week and leave smoothly on 22 May, or the government will have to return to Brussels with an alternative plan – either no deal or some unspecified alternative – in a fortnight.