A mock funeral casket decorated with the words ‘RIP Brexit’ sits on display during an anti-Brexit protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, U.K. (Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg)

EU Is Split Over Delaying Brexit By as Much as a Year, Diplomats Say

(Bloomberg) -- European Union governments disagree over how long they think the U.K. should delay Brexit, with some pushing for an extension of as much as a year, diplomats said.

While some countries think the EU should offer Britain a generous period to negotiate a deal that will win the backing of Parliament, possibly after a second referendum, others oppose a postponement of any sort and want pressure to be put on the U.K. to accept a deal as soon as possible, according to four EU diplomats.

EU Is Split Over Delaying Brexit By as Much as a Year, Diplomats Say

It’s up to the U.K. to request a delay and, so far, Prime Minister Theresa May has said she doesn’t intend to. But with the deal the government negotiated with the EU suffering the biggest House of Commons defeat in history last week and little sign there’s a majority in favor of any alternative, many officials on both sides believe keeping the U.K. in the bloc beyond its scheduled March 29 exit date is the only plausible way forward.

In Parliament on Monday, when asked to rule out a postponement, May simply said that she’s “working to find a deal” so the U.K. “can and will leave the European Union on March 29.”

Any extension needs unanimous approval from the EU’s remaining 27 countries.

The EU shouldn’t just "extend the agony" of Brexit, Slovak Foreign Minister Miroslav Lajcak told reporters in Brussels on Monday. “If there is a good reason, then yes.”

German Chancellor Angela Merkel -- who is taking a more flexible approach on the timing of any extension -- indicated on Saturday that she wants to help Britain secure an orderly exit. She said it’s the EU’s responsibility to help find a solution.

“We also have a responsibility to shape this separation process in a responsible way, so that people don’t look back in 50 years, shaking their heads, and say why weren’t we in a position to make a compromise?” she said.

EU Is Split Over Delaying Brexit By as Much as a Year, Diplomats Say

Elections to the European Parliament in May are the biggest obstacle to any extension. Several countries believe the U.K. should be able to delay Brexit until the start of July when the newly elected assembly sits for the first time.

Other countries believe the U.K. should be given longer, even as much as a year, to nail down a far more detailed blueprint for the future, meaning Britain may have to take part in the EU-wide vote.

Long Extension

France and the European Commission, the EU’s executive, are among those pushing for a long extension, said the diplomats, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are private. Germany takes a flexible approach, although it isn’t in the camp pushing for the longest extension.

But several governments think the fast-approaching deadline acts as leverage and the U.K. shouldn’t be offered any delay, or only a “technical” one of a matter of weeks, to allow the U.K. Parliament to pass necessary legislation in order to push Britain to accept the existing deal.

Diplomats said the EU is still broadly united on Brexit and the disagreement probably isn’t serious enough to block any U.K. request for a postponement, but it does highlight the tension over what the EU strategy should be. The issue could bubble to the surface if leaders are asked to consider a delay.

Some officials in European capitals believe there is still a chance that Britain could change its mind and stay in the bloc after all and the longer it can prolong the negotiation period, the more likely that will become. Others think a line needs to be drawn under the messy talks so that European governments can focus on other matters, such as fighting populism and strengthening the euro area.

EU Is Split Over Delaying Brexit By as Much as a Year, Diplomats Say

Backbench members of Parliament, led by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, are working on a plan to take control of Brexit out of the government’s hands, ultimately giving the chamber the chance to ask the EU to delay the departure day. EU officials said the bloc will wait until the U.K. clarifies its position before making its next move.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.