BRUSSELS • The European Union (EU) was yesterday set to grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Brexit at an emergency summit, but leaders were expected to impose conditions to prevent any future British leader jeopardising the bloc.
In what was cast in London as a national humiliation, Mrs May dashed to Berlin and Paris on the eve of the summit to ask German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron to allow her to postpone a divorce that was supposed to have been Britain's "liberation".
Germany, France, Luxembourg and the EU's Brexit negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, favoured a short delay of the date of Britain's departure, officials said. Those backing a shorter respite for Britain said it would keep up the pressure on the factious House of Commons to ratify the stalled EU exit deal.
The Netherlands and the Czech Republic preferred a longer postponement, saying it could scare staunch Brexit supporters in Britain into backing the exit deal over fear their project might never materialise at all.
Mr Barnier also said that should the UK opt for a Customs union with the EU after Brexit, it would solve the problem of Customs checks on the sensitive Irish border, but industry regulation checks would still be required, the officials said.
France opposes an automatic long extension at this stage and if London wants one, Mr Macron could demand Mrs May sign up to a legally binding undertaking not to cause trouble by vetoing EU decisions.
Dr Merkel said she would meet Mr Macron ahead of the summit to coordinate their position.
A draft of the summit conclusions seen by Reuters said Britain would be granted another delay on certain conditions. It left the end date blank.
"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," the draft read.
A long delay to Brexit would put the entire divorce in doubt by opening up the space for a second referendum and election, while harsh conditions would likely lead to a swifter end to Mrs May's premiership.
European leaders fear a no-deal exit tomorrow at 2200 GMT (6am, Saturday, Singapore time) would spook financial markets, hurt the US$16 trillion (S$21.66 trillion) economy of the remaining 27 EU states and undermine global trade.
At the summit yesterday, Mrs May was required to explain her Brexit strategy before the EU's 27 leaders before leaving while they discussed her request over dinner.
While they dined, she was set to wait for their decision in the British delegation's quarters. Subsequently, Mrs May would be briefed on the EU's decision by summit chairman Donald Tusk.
EU leaders are exasperated with Mrs May's handling of a tortuous and potentially expensive divorce that many in Brussels feel is a distraction from ensuring that the bloc can hold its own beside the United States and China.
"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."
French officials have said if Britain draws out its divorce, it should not take part in EU Budget talks or in choosing the next president of the EU's executive commission.