LONDON/BRUSSELS • British Prime Minister Theresa May wrote to Brussels yesterday asking for a delay of Brexit until up to June 30, while saying she aims to get Britain out of the European Union earlier to avoid it participating in European elections.
But European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU summits, has proposed a longer Brexit postponement of one year for Britain's feuding politicians to agree and ratify a plan, EU officials said.
Any such extension would still require the unanimous approval of the other 27 EU countries and some, notably France, suggested they wanted a better justification from London for its request.
Britain is now due to leave the EU in a week, but Mrs May has been forced to seek more time after Britain's Parliament repeatedly rejected her withdrawal agreement.
Her Conservative Party is deeply divided, as is the main opposition Labour Party, leading to a bewildering marathon of inconclusive votes in Parliament that stretched Britain's centuries-old unwritten Constitution to its limits.
Scenarios ranging from abandoning the EU abruptly with no deal to cancelling Brexit altogether have all gone down to defeat. Obscure parliamentary procedures have been resurrected, providing daily drama in the House of Commons but making the future of Britain's biggest change in generations no clearer.
After finally recognising that her minority Conservative government could not push through a Brexit deal on its own, Mrs May started talks this week with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in the hope of coming up with a cross-party solution. But that means accepting the need for more time, including the possibility of Britain holding European Parliament elections on May 23, which she has hoped to avoid at all cost.
"The United Kingdom proposes that this period should end on June 30, 2019," Mrs May said in the letter. "The government will want to agree on a timetable for ratification that allows the United Kingdom to withdraw from the European Union before May 23, 2019, and therefore cancel the European Parliament elections, but will continue to make responsible preparations to hold the elections should this not prove possible."
But there seems to be little appetite in Brussels for an extension that could create another cliff edge in three months. Mrs May asked two weeks ago for an extension to June 30, and the EU turned her down. Mr Tusk, who will convene a meeting of EU leaders on Wednesday, plans to propose an extension of a year, senior EU officials said. As in Mrs May's proposal, the extension could be halted early if Britain ratifies the withdrawal agreement.
"The only reasonable way out would be a long but flexible extension. I would call it a 'flextension'," an EU official said. "It seems to be a good scenario for both sides as it gives the UK all the necessary flexibility, while avoiding the need to meet every few weeks to further discuss Brexit extensions."
The drama in Britain's Parliament - where governments normally control business and rarely hold votes unless they will win - has no modern precedent. One vote was the biggest government defeat in history.
Another was won by a single vote after a lawmaker, on parole from prison, turned up with an ankle tag.
One Conservative choked back tears and stormed off the party benches as he quit the party on the floor of the House.
Yesterday offered a respite, with no business scheduled in Parliament. But more talks were planned between staff of Mrs May and Mr Corbyn. Mrs May's spokesman said there would be no time limit but the government's aim was to produce a deal that could be ratified in time to leave the EU by May 22.