Theresa May has issued a call for Parliament to deliver on the decision of the British people and take the UK out of the European Union.
As she arrived in Brussels for an EU summit at which she hopes to be granted a three-month extension to the UK’s Brexit deadline, the Prime Minister said she “sincerely hopes” Britain will be able to leave with a deal.
But other EU leaders indicated that the 27 remaining states may only be willing to offer her a postponement to the eve of European Parliament elections on May 23, rather than the date of June 30 which she is seeking.
French president Emmanuel Macron said only a short “technical” extension was on offer and if MPs vote down Mrs May’s deal for a third time next week “it will guide everybody to a no-deal for sure”.
Describing the UK as being in “political crisis”, Mr Macron said: “There needs to be a profound political change if there is to be an extension which is anything other than technical.”
Mrs May was coming under intense pressure after a poor reception from some of her own MPs to her Downing Street statement on Wednesday, when she blamed MPs for failing to implement the result of the 2016 EU referendum and told frustrated voters “I am on your side”.
The televised message was described as a “low blow” by former minister Sam Gyimah.
You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side.pic.twitter.com/0w7GHgvieL
— Theresa May (@theresa_may) March 20, 2019
But Number 10 defended her comments, saying they had been intended as a “message to the public” to explain why she had decided to seek an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process.
And she put the spotlight back on MPs as she arrived in Brussels, saying: “What is important is that Parliament delivers on the result of the referendum and that we deliver Brexit for the British people. I sincerely hope that we can do that with a deal.”
She added: “What matters is that we recognise that Brexit is the decision of the British people – we need to deliver on that.
“We’re nearly three years on from the original vote – it is now the time for Parliament to decide.”
We've had very constructive discussions with EU negotiators in Brussels today. We're reaching out in the UK and in the EU to find an alternative that can command the support of parliament and the country. pic.twitter.com/q3FpHrgfg1
— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) March 21, 2019
Jeremy Corbyn held what he described as “very constructive discussions” in Brussels with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and European Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr which he said had focused on the means to prevent a no-deal Brexit next Friday.
The Labour leader twice declined to rule out the option of halting Brexit by revoking the Article 50 letter informing Brussels of Britain’s intention to quit.
Asked if he was willing to consider revocation if it was the only way to prevent no-deal Brexit, Mr Corbyn said: “These are hypotheticals. So far as we’re concerned, we think there’s an urgency in constructing a majority for an agreeable solution and that’s what we’re concentrating on at the moment.”
With just eight days before the UK is due to leave the EU, the Prime Minister will make the case for an extension to June 30 to the other 27 EU leaders at the opening of the two-day summit, before leaving them to discuss their response in her absence.
She met European Council President Donald Tusk for one-to-one a meeting ahead of the summit.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 21, 2019
But plans for formal talks with French President Emmanuel Macron – seen as the most likely opponent to her request for more time – had to be put off, and she is now expected to speak to him on the margins of the meeting.
Ahead of the meeting, Mr Tusk said a “short” delay should be possible – but only if MPs finally back Mrs May’s deal before the deadline day on March 29.
But European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker warned Britain would have to leave by May 23 if it did not want to hold elections to the European Parliament – something Mrs May said she is determined to avoid.
And Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite said EU leaders would be “supportive” to the Prime Minister but were likely to offer her either “an extension only (to) May or a longer extension”
With fears in Brussels growing that the UK is heading for a no-deal break, Mr Tusk said he would not hesitate to call an emergency summit next week if that proved necessary.
Even if the hope for final success may seem frail, even illusory, and although Brexit fatigue is increasingly visible and justified, we cannot give up seeking – until the very last moment – a positive solution. #euco
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 20, 2019
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said she will work “until the last hour” to try and ensure that Britain does not leave the European Union without a deal.
Speaking to German MPs ahead of the summit, Mrs Merkel stressed “the most important emergency measures” are in place in her country to handle no-deal, but she still hopes to avoid a crisis.
She added: “We will, despite these measures we have taken, work until the last day — I will say until the last hour — to ensure that this emergency planning doesn’t come into effect.
“We will do everything in the remaining, admittedly few, days to achieve an orderly, joint solution.”
Mrs May formally made the request for an extension to the end of June in a letter to Mr Tusk on Wednesday.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) March 20, 2019
The Prime Minister had previously indicated she would seek a longer delay after her deal went down to a 149-vote defeat in last week’s second “meaningful vote”.
However, she reportedly backed down after the threat of Cabinet resignations by Brexiteer ministers, who feared it could spell the end of their hopes of leaving the EU.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain would be faced with three options if Mrs May’s deal is defeated again next week: revoke Article 50; leave without a deal; or, he said, a longer extension could be granted at an emergency EU summit, but with “onerous conditions”.
“The choice that we have now is one of resolving this issue or extreme unpredictability,” he warned.
Mr Hunt sought to defend the Prime Minister’s statement, saying she was under “extraordinary pressure” and feels a “sense of frustration” – and said MPs have a “special responsibility” in a hung Parliament.
“She is absolutely determined to deliver what people voted for and I think… the Brexit process has sapped our national confidence and we need to remember now what we’re capable of as a country.”
A No 10 spokeswoman acknowledged Mrs May is facing some “extraordinarily difficult challenges”, but said she is working “tirelessly” to get her deal “over the line”.