BRUSSELS • The European Union agreed to London's request for a Brexit deadline extension yesterday but set no new departure date, giving Britain's divided Parliament time to decide on Prime Minister Boris Johnson's call for a snap election.
"There was full agreement on the need for an extension," an EU official said after ambassadors to the 27 other EU member states met to discuss postponing Britain's exit from the bloc, less than a week before the current deadline next Thursday.
"Work will continue over the weekend," he said, adding that the envoys would meet again in Brussels next Monday or Tuesday.
A day after admitting that he will not meet his "do or die"deadline, Mr Johnson said it was up to the EU to decide on an extension, but that Britain "should be leaving on Oct 31".
"Of course, Oct 31 is still possible... unfortunately it depends on what the EU says," he said, adding that if opponents frustrate his bid for an election on Dec 12, his minority government would not engage in pointless "Brexitology" in Parliament.
The EU envoys, who met for about two hours, had been due to discuss the length of a third delay to Brexit, but diplomats said they were reluctant to set a date because it could dictate the direction of political events in London.
One EU diplomat said France pressed the other 26 to wait.
"Everyone wanted a decision today. But France had a problem with that and wanted to wait until Monday, Tuesday to see what happens in London," the diplomat said.
"We will come back to this discussion at length after the weekend. And this time is to be used for political consultations."
Another diplomat added: "All this discussion delayed because of France."
According to a draft document seen by Reuters ahead of yesterday's meeting, a delay was to be granted "with the view to allowing for the finalisation of the ratification" of the divorce agreement the EU27 sealed with Mr Johnson last week.
The draft text left the new Brexit date blank, but said the split could take place earlier if ratification was completed earlier - an idea known as "flextension", an amalgamation of the words "flexible" and "extension". An EU official explained: "It's basically between a three-month flextension and a two-tier one."
Under the first idea, Britain would leave on Jan 31, three months after the current departure date, but earlier if it and the EU ratify an agreement before that. The second one would include a second specific date when Britain could leave.
More than three years after Britons voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to be the first sovereign country to leave the European project, the future of Brexit is unclear.
Mr Johnson won the leadership of the ruling Conservative Party to become prime minister in a minority government by staking his career on getting Brexit done by next Thursday. But after Parliament rejected his proposed legislative timetable on Tuesday, he will fail to do that.
Brexit was initially supposed to have taken place on March 29, but Mr Johnson's predecessor, Mrs Theresa May, was forced to delay it twice as Parliament defeated her Brexit deal by margins of between 58 and 230 votes earlier this year. Her failure cost Mrs May her job.
Mr Johnson told opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Thursday that he would give Parliament more time to approve his Brexit deal by Nov 6, if lawmakers back a December election in a vote next Monday - his third attempt to try to force snap polls.
It is not clear how Mr Corbyn will respond now that the EU has shelved its decision on a Brexit date.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said the Prime Minister would push ahead with plans to leave the EU if lawmakers fail to back his call for a pre-Christmas election.
Ladbrokes said betting odds indicated an election next year. "It's looking like Boris Johnson will have to write a new letter to Santa Claus for his Christmas wishes this year," said the bookmaker's spokesman Jessica O'Reilly.