European Union leaders gave Britain six more months to leave the bloc, more than Prime Minister Theresa May says she needs but less than many in the bloc wanted, thanks to fierce resistance from France.
The summit deal in Brussels in the early hours of Thursday meant Britain will not crash out on Friday without a treaty to smooth its passage. But it offers little clarity on when, how or even if Brexit will happen, as May struggles to build support in parliament for withdrawal terms agreed with the EU last year.
With German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisting that Britain would not be forced out and that a chaotic no-deal departure must be avoided if at all possible, there was never any real doubt that May would get an extension.
French President Emmanuel Macron, reprising a role he took last month when May got a first, two-week delay, pushed leaders into hours of debate over dinner as he fought a largely solo campaign to persuade them not to give the British up to another year.
Summit chair Donald Tusk and others argued that obliging May to accept a much longer deadline than the June 30 date she had sought could help swing pro-Brexit hardliners within her own Conservative party behind her deal, fearing a long delay could see the British public turning against a withdrawal altogether.
But Macron, while irritating some peers who saw his stance as Gallic grandstanding, insisted that letting Britain stay in the Union any longer risked undermining the project of European integration that is one of his main policy goals.
The result was a compromise on the date, with a deadline of Oct. 31, for Britain to leave, deal or no deal — on condition that May holds an election on May 23 to return British members to a new European Parliament that convenes in July, and that it pledge not to disrupt key EU decision-making before it leaves.
If May fails to win over lawmakers on the treaty or fails to hold an election, Britain will leave with no deal on June 1.
Merkel, who eased tension at the start of the talks by sharing a joke with May over photographs of them both wearing very similar jackets, stressed a need for calm and order: “We want an orderly exit by Britain,” she said. “And an orderly exit by Britain can be best ensured if we give it some time.”
Tusk, a former Polish premier who has long tried to keep a door open for Britons to change their minds and stay, said the delay until Halloween gave time for London to ratify May’s deal, tweak elements of the future EU-UK relationship to Labour’s liking — or give it a chance to “cancel Brexit altogether”.