EU leaders seek clarity from UK before possible Brexit delay

EU leaders on Friday were seeking answers from Britain before they consider delaying the UK's scheduled exit date from the European Union.

Legally, Britain will exit from the bloc on March 29 unless EU leaders unanimously grant Britain an extension — an issue that is likely to dominate an EU summit in Brussels next week.

Prime Minister Theresa May's deal has remained deadlocked in Parliament, mostly due to disagreement over the so-called Irish "backstop," a measure to avoid barriers at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Read more: Brexit: Is the EU willing to grant an Article 50 extension?

UK lawmakers overwhelmingly backed a government motion on Thursday to ask for a three-month delay to Britain's departure from the EU.

The length of any possible delay depends on the outcome of another parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal struck by May with EU leaders. May's divorce deal has already been overwhelmingly rejected twice by MPs.

The British government has said it would ask for a "technical" delay until June 30 to pass necessary legislation if MPs finally approve the deal next week.

If MPs vote against it for a third time, the government has warned it will have to seek a much longer extension.

'Next steps … must come from Britain'

"It is very clear that the next steps, the next proposal on how to move forward must come from Britain," Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, said in Berlin on Friday.

The office of French President Emmanuel Macron said if the current deal was rejected again, "a clear and new alternative plan" must be presented or else Britain would have to leave the EU with no agreement.

Read more: Brexit: Is the end nigh?

Speaking during a visit to Paris, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said "everyone would welcome" MPs approving the deal and Brexit being briefly pushed back to get the necessary legislation through.

But on the possibility of a longer delay, Coveney said: "I think many EU leaders will be very uncomfortable with a long extension."

For the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May's government, the Irish backstop remains the key issue in the Brexit negotiations.

Read more: Brexit: Why is the Irish backstop so controversial?

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Friday there had been good talks with senior British ministers, including Treasury chief Philip Hammond, and said progress had been made. However, he said that progress was insufficient and much would depend on what guarantees the government could offer.

Delay a chance to rework EU's approach to Brexit

Senior German conservative lawmaker Detlef Seif, an ally of Merkel, said delaying Britain's exit from the EU could present an opportunity to rework the bloc's approach to negotiating with London.

German conservatives would prefer Britain to stay in the EU or else adopt May's Brexit agreement, but Seif said that if neither of those scenarios came to fruition he would back a delay until late 2020.

In the event of such a delay, Seif told news agency Reuters: "I am of the view that we should change the EU's guidelines."

law/cmk (AFP, Reuters)

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