France on Wednesday threatened to reject British Prime Minister Theresa May’s request for a three-month delay to Brexit unless she can guarantee to get her departure plans though parliament, potentially sending Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
May asked the EU to allow Britain to extend Brexit to June 30 and EU leaders are expected to discuss the matter at a summit on Thursday.
The decision must be taken unanimously by all remaining 27 EU members.
Some EU states, including Germany, had given a largely positive response to May’s well-flagged request.
But with the clock ticking towards Britain’s formal departure date on March 29, French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le-Drian, said May would need to make her case before EU leaders in Brussels.
“Our position is to send the British a clear and simple message: as Theresa May said repeatedly herself, there are only two options to get out of the EU: ratify the Withdrawal Agreement or exit without a deal,” Le-Drian told the French parliament.
He said: “A situation in which Mrs May was not be able to present to the European Council sufficient guarantees of the credibility of her strategy would lead to the extension request being dismissed and opting for a no-deal exit.”
May’s initiative came just nine days before Britain is formally due to leave the EU and marked the latest twist in more than two years of negotiations that have left British politics in chaos and the prime minister’s authority in tatters.
After the defeats in parliament opened up the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal and a smooth transition, May said she remained committed to leaving “in an orderly manner” and wanted to postpone Brexit until June 30.
Her announcement prompted uproar in parliament, where the opposition Labour Party accused her of “blackmail, bullying and bribery” in her attempts to push her deal through.
One prominent pro-Brexit supporter in her own Conservative Party said seeking a delay was “betraying the British people”.
Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU by 52 to 48 per cent, but the decision has split the country, opening up divisive debates over the future of the economy, the nation’s place in the world and the nature of Britishness itself.
A European Commission document seen by Reuters said the delay should either be several weeks shorter, to avoid a clash with European elections in May, or extend at least until the end of the year, which would oblige Britain to take part in the elections.
“Any extension offered to the United Kingdom should either last until May 23 or should be significantly longer and require European elections,” the document said.
It added: “This is the only way of protecting the functioning of the EU institutions and their ability to take decisions.”
EU states due to receive additional legislative seats after Brexit would need to know by mid- to late-April if they would be denied those seats because Britain was staying.
The note also said in any extended membership, Britain should, “in a spirit of loyal cooperation”, commit to “constructive abstention” on key issues, such as the EU’s long-term budget and filling top EU posts after the May election.
Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned May in a call on Wednesday against requesting a delay beyond May 23, unless the United Kingdom takes part in the European vote, an EU spokeswoman said.
Most EU states vote on Sundays and will vote on May 26 but Britain votes on Thursdays, and so would vote on May 23.
“President Juncker has formally warned the PM against including a date for the extension that is after the EP elections,” a Commission spokeswoman said.
“That’s why he repeated to her his advice … that the withdrawal has to be complete before 23 May – otherwise we face institutional difficulties and legal uncertainty. The EU is wary of undermining the legitimacy of the new.