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EU wrangles over new Brexit delay sought by May

European Union leaders prepared to grant Theresa May a new delay to Brexit on Wednesday but argued late into the evening over how long a reprieve would best protect the EU from political chaos in Britain.
Two days before Britain will otherwise lurch out of the bloc without a legal safety net, the British prime minister made an hour-long pitch for a second extension, to June 30, to give time for talks with her Labour opponents to produce a parliamentary majority for the withdrawal treaty she negotiated with the EU.
The other 27 had all but ruled out pitching Britain, and parts of the EU economy, into chaos on Friday. But a drive by French President Emmanuel Macron to keep London on a tight leash with an extension no longer than to June saw the emergency summit bogged down in late-night wrangling as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and others argued the merits of granting up to a year.
As at a summit last month which put back Brexit for two weeks, several EU diplomats said May failed to persuade her peers that she could definitely break the paralysis of repeated failures to ratify the treaty within the coming months.
But Macron had told reporters on arrival that he was concerned that letting Britain stay in the bloc longer, notably if it takes part in elections to the European Parliament on May 23-26, posed a serious risk to the functioning of the Union."Nothing can be taken for granted," the French president warned.
French officials said the EU faced "blackmail" by hardline pro-Brexit potential successors to May, such as Boris Johnson. They might try to sabotage decision-making and so any longer EU membership must come with tighter commitments from Britain to play fair than were so far drafted into a summit accord.
An aide to Macron warned that France could even be ready to let Britain crash out without a treaty to avoid legal limbo and provide a transition to new trading terms: "Not everything is preferable to a no-deal. A no-deal situation is a real option."
However, Merkel has urged the bloc to do all it can to avoid such disruption. She said before leaving Berlin that she favoured a delay of "several months" for May, who has pledged to quit if hardcore Brexit supporters in her own Conservative party drop objections to her "soft Brexit" and help ratify the deal.
Keen to ease tension, Merkel had broken the ice as talks began by showing May a photomontage on a tablet of both wearing similar jackets when addressing their parliaments earlier in the day. It provoked mutual laughter as other leaders joined in.
As talks wore on beyond midnight, with May patiently waiting elsewhere in the building for word on her nation's fate, Macron rallied support for his concerns about a long extension. But most of the other 27 seemed content to offer Britain nine months to a year, several diplomats briefed by participants told Reuters.
"Macron ... said anything beyond June 30 would jeopardise the EU and we shouldn't go there," one said, suggesting talks could drag on through the night in the quest for compromise.
Legally, Britain is due to leave on Friday. But leaders said they would not force Britain out in a disorderly departure and that the only question for the summit was how long to postpone.
"If they need a little more time, I think it's reasonable to discuss what that would be," Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said, noting that Britain still faced choices - to leave without a deal, accept the deal that its parliament has rejected three times, or change its mind and stay in the EU.
May said on arrival that she did not want a long delay: "I want us to be able to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way as soon as possible," she told reporters.
Her EU peers, however, are skeptical about her ability to break the deadlock soon and discussed a proposal by summit chair Donald Tusk of a "flextension" of nine months to a year. This, some argue, could increase pressure on May's pro-Brexit critics to back her deal rather than risk Brexit fizzling out.
If Britain does not elect EU lawmakers, it must leave, with or without a deal, on June 1, according to a draft summit agreement seen by Reuters. Otherwise, it would leave as soon as it ratifies the deal, or without one when the extension ends.
France wants a new summit once it is clearer whether or not there will be an early ratification or a British EU vote. An election for 73 British seats in the European Parliament could be a virtual second referendum on EU membership and so offer a guide to whether Britons might end up backing out of Brexit.
EU leaders are exasperated with May's handling of a tortuous and costly divorce that is a distraction from ensuring the bloc can hold its own against global economic challenges.
Across from the summit venue, the EU executive celebrated its part in funding a global project that produced the first picture of a black hole, prompting no shortage of ironic comments on social media about the juxtaposition.
Blogger Eliot Higgins tweeted: "We're now more certain about what black holes look like than what Brexit looks like."


© (c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2019.
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