The UK is heading for a Halloween Brexit after leaders of the remaining 27 EU countries offered Theresa May to delay the deadline for withdrawal to October 31.
The date was a compromise solution thrashed out in five hours of talks in May’s absence, after French President Emmanuel Macron held out against a longer extension lasting into 2020.
The prime minister’s agreement is required for any change to the Brexit date to be finalised.
Most of the leaders at the Brussels summit are understood to have favoured the longer extension of as much as a year recommended by European Council President Donald Tusk.
But Macron dug his heels in for a shorter delay, warning that a no-deal Brexit would be less damaging than a disruptive UK remaining for month after month.
Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat welcomed the compromise date, saying: “A Brexit extension until 31 October is sensible since it gives time to UK to finally choose its way.
“The review in June will allow the European Council to take stock of the situation.”
An apparently relaxed prime minister laughed and smiled with Angela Merkel as the German chancellor showed her pictures on her tablet computer depicting the pair wearing jackets of exactly the same shade of blue as they addressed their parliaments earlier in the day.
Merkel told German MPs that the EU27 “may well” go for a longer delay, although the UK would be allowed to leave “very quickly” if Parliament approves a withdrawal deal.
But as he arrived in Brussels, Macron insisted that “for me, nothing is settled, and in particular no long extension”.
Despite having face-to-face talks with the PM in Paris on Tuesday, the French President said he needed more “clarity” and was “impatient” to hear what May would say.
“We must understand today why this request? What is the political project which justifies it and what are the clear proposals?” he said.
May said: “I have asked for an extension to June 30, but what is important is that any extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, so we can leave on May 22 and start to build our brighter future.”
In a swipe at the Brexit rebels who blocked her Withdrawal Agreement from passing through Parliament in time to leave on the scheduled date of March 29, May said: “I know many people are frustrated that the summit is taking place at all, because the UK should have left the EU by now.
“I greatly regret the fact that Parliament hasn’t been able to pass a deal that would have enabled us to leave in a smooth and orderly way.
“But I and the government continue to work to find a way forward. We have been talking with the opposition. There’s been serious and constructive talks and they will continue tomorrow.”
Other leaders said that the main condition likely to be imposed in return for any extension was that Britain should prepare for European Parliament elections on May 23, though it need not actually vote if ratification is achieved earlier.
Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite rejected suggestions that countries like hers now held Britain’s fate in their hands.
“It is only up to the UK to decide,” she said. “Your country’s future is only in your hands, nobody else. It’s only up to you.
“You decide your fate, not us. We would only like to help you make this decision.”
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn welcomed comments from Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggesting he is ready to contemplate a role for the UK in helping decide EU trade policies if it remains in a customs union after Brexit.
Varadkar said that it would be in the UK’s interests to remain within the European trading bloc.
And he added: “It’s also in our interest to have the UK to be in our bloc and I think we would be generous in understanding that the UK couldn’t be a silent partner and would have to have a say in decisions being made.”
It is understood the June review will assess UK co-operation during and after May’s European elections, with the possibility of the exit date being brought forward to the PM’s preferred date of June 30.
May gave a one-hour presentation setting out her case for an extension to June 30, with a break clause allowing the UK to leave as soon as her Withdrawal Agreement was ratified.
But she had to leave the EU27 to discuss the UK’s future in her absence over a dinner of scallop soup and loin of cod. It took five hours of wrangling before she was summoned back from the residence of UK ambassador Sir Tim Barrow for her agreement to be sought.
Failure to reach unanimous agreement would mean the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal at 11pm on Friday.
Tusk tweeted: “EU27 has agreed an extension of Article 50. I will now meet PM Theresa May for the UK government’s agreement.”