Radical rethink of red lines needed, EU tells PM Theresa May

While many EU officials expect British Prime Minister Theresa May to ask for an extension to the exit day, European governments still disagree over whether it should be allowed - and how long it should last.
While many EU officials expect British Prime Minister Theresa May to ask for an extension to the exit day, European governments still disagree over whether it should be allowed - and how long it should last.PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON • The scale of British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit defeat has convinced the European Union to demand that she radically rethink Britain's red lines, as the bloc signalled its willingness to delay the country's withdrawal by many months.

The EU had been preparing to make limited concessions over the much-loathed Irish border backstop to help Mrs May convince Parliament to back her deal.

But the 230-vote loss on Tuesday night (Jan 15) changed that: European governments now believe a more fundamental shift is needed and the move has to come from the British side, three diplomats said.

It adds to growing evidence that Brexit is unlikely to happen on the long-scheduled date of March 29, with European governments willing to delay Britain's departure well into the second half of the year, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But they told Mrs May that she needs to enter into credible cross-party discussions to ensure there is a unified British position on Brexit, then present the EU with a road map for the way forward.

EU diplomats say the next step could be to reopen the political declaration - the part of the agreement dealing with future relations - to make it clearer that ties will remain close after the split.

That could include signing up permanently to a Customs union with the EU, which has been one of Mrs May's red lines but is the policy of the opposition Labour Party.

 
 
 

It would remove the need for many elements of the backstop, which is designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, which is part of the EU. The issue is a contentious one for pro-Brexit lawmakers because while it ensures that goods flow freely across the Irish border after Brexit, it would keep Britain tied to many European rules until an agreement on a detailed trade deal.

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn yesterday urged Mrs May to blur those red lines, saying he was open to a compromise.

While many EU officials expect Mrs May to ask for an extension to the exit day, European governments still disagree over whether it should be allowed - and how long it should last.

Some believe their vision for getting the deal passed can still be achieved over the next 10 weeks; others think an extension is needed that could stretch Britain's membership well into the second half of this year.

Mrs May told Parliament on Wednesday that the plan was still to leave on March 29, but left the door open to an extension. A spokesman for the European Commission said yesterday it had not received Britain's request for an extension.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 18, 2019, with the headline 'Radical rethink of red lines needed, EU tells PM May'. Print Edition | Subscribe