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EU to grant Brexit delay but may demand a longer extension and conditions

EU diplomats say a 'flextension' till year-end or till March 2020 appears to be the most likely option

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Activists waving EU flags near the Houses of Parliament in central London on April 10.

Brussels

THE European Union will grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Brexit at an emergency summit on Wednesday but the bloc's leaders are likely to demand she accepts a longer extension with conditions.

In a sign of just how far the Brexit crisis has sapped British power, Mrs May dashed to Berlin and Paris on the eve of the summit to ask Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron to allow her to put off the departure date to June 30 from April 12. But in Brussels, a "flextension" until the end of the year or until March 2020 was shaping up to be the most likely option, EU diplomats said. Such an option would allow Britain to leave earlier if the Brexit deadlock in London could be broken.

Mrs Merkel said on Wednesday that she was open to giving Britain more time to arrange its exit from the EU than the June 30 departure London is seeking. She told Germany's parliament ahead of a special EU summit in Brussels dedicated to Brexit that leaders may well agree to a delay "longer than the British prime minister has requested". "I am of the opinion, the German government is of the opinion, that we should give both (British) parties a reasonable amount of time" to reach an agreement on an orderly Brexit, she said. "I think the extension should be as short as possible. But it should be long enough to create a certain calm so we don't have to meet every two weeks to deal with the same subject."

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Without a postponement, Britain is due to crash out of the European Union at midnight on Friday under a "no-deal" Brexit that could trigger economic chaos.

A source from Mrs Merkel's Christian Democratic Union later quoted the chancellor as telling a party meeting that she viewed an extension of the Brexit deadline for "several months to early 2020 as possible".

But a French source said a 12-month extension "seems too long". An official in Mr Macron's office said that "in the scenario of an extended delay, one year would seem too long for us". He added that if Britain did delay its exit, it should not take part in EU budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU's executive commission - and that the other 27 member states should be able to review its "sincere cooperation".

While it was not immediately clear what Mrs Merkel and Mr Macron, Europe's two most powerful leaders, agreed with Mrs May, an advance draft of conclusions for Wednesday's emergency EU summit said Britain would be granted another delay on certain conditions.

"The United Kingdom shall facilitate the achievement of the Union's tasks and refrain from any measure which could jeopardise the attainment of the Union's objectives," read the draft seen by Reuters. As a full member state of the EU, Britain could in theory exercise a veto on any major policy decision. The draft left the end-date blank pending a decision by the other 27 national leaders on Wednesday evening in Brussels.

"In my view, a short extension would not bring much," said Detlef Seif, deputy EU spokesman for Mrs Merkel's parliamentary group. "There is no appetite to return to a new European Council every six weeks to decide whether to renew the extension."

Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay signalled that the UK is open to a long delay - as long as it can leave the bloc earlier if it ratifies the divorce deal. He reiterated, though, that the option he and the prime minister want is a short delay to June 30. "If there were to be an extension beyond that, then it has to be one that is terminable," Mr Barclay told BBC Radio. "The sooner we can get our exit the better."

Mr Barclay also said talks with the opposition Labour Party to find a compromise have been happening "at pace" and have been " constructive", but added that the process is "difficult" because "it's contrary to the normal tradition of British politics to be operating in this way".

Mr Barclay said he's not in favour of a post-Brexit customs union with the EU - a key Labour demand - because the government has negotiated "something better in the political declaration''. He said Labour, as much as the government, needs to compromise. After Tuesday's round of talks, Labour said it had not yet seen a clear shift in Mrs May's stance.

After her pledge to resign failed to get her deal over the line, she launched crisis talks with the opposition Labour Party in the hope of breaking the domestic deadlock.

The Northern Irish party which props up her government said Mrs May was embarrassing the United Kingdom. "Nearly three years after the referendum the UK is today effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders," Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds said.

In European capitals there was weariness and exasperation with Britain's tortuous Brexit divorce after 46 years of membership. "People are tired and fed up (with Britain's indecision) - but what to do?" one EU diplomat said. "We won't be the ones pushing the UK off the cliff edge."

Another EU official involved with Brexit said no European power wanted the chaos that they fear a "no-deal" exit would sow through financial markets and the EU 27's US$16 trillion economy. REUTERS, AFP, BLOOMBERG