The EU is preparing to delay Brexit until at least July after concluding that Theresa May is doomed to fail in getting her deal through parliament.
The country’s 29 March deadline for exiting the EU is now regarded by Brussels as highly unlikely to be met given the domestic opposition facing the prime minister and it is expecting a request from London to extend article 50 in the coming weeks.
A special leaders’ summit to push back Brexit day is expected to be convened by the European council president, Donald Tusk, once a UK request is received. EU officials said the length of the prolongation of the negotiating period allowed under #article 50 would be determined based on the reason put forward by May for the delay.
A “technical” extension until July is a probable first step to give May extra time to revise and ratify the current deal once Downing Street has a clear idea as to what will command a majority in the Commons.
An EU official said: “Should the prime minister survive and inform us that she needs more time to win round parliament to a deal, a technical extension up to July will be offered.”
Senior EU sources said that a further, lengthier extension could be offered at a later date should a general election or second referendum be called although the upcoming May elections for the European parliament would create complications.
One EU diplomat said: “The first session of the parliament is in July. You would need UK MEPs there if the country is still a member state. But things are not black and white in the European Union.”
The European commission will publish a letter on Monday giving fresh assurances on the temporary status of the Irish backstop in a hope to win over some MPs to the deal but EU officials are downplaying expectations.
The heads of state and government said at a recent summit that the withdrawal agreement, and the contentious backstop that a large number of Tory MPs fear will trap the UK in a permanent customs union, could be neither altered nor reinterpreted.
But officials said Brussels would be in listening mode, and take guidance from the prime minister as to the next steps should she suffer a heavy defeat as is widely expected.
May has to give parliament a statement on her next move within three parliamentary working days of the vote. EU officials believe that whatever emerges will likely require a prolongation of the two-year negotiating period.