EU summit readies for Brexit in May - or next week
EU leaders will tell Theresa May on Thursday she can have two months to organise an orderly Brexit but Britain could face a hugely disruptive ejection from the bloc next Friday if the prime minister fails to win backing from parliament.
The pound was under pressure as investors saw risks of a no-deal Brexit rising on signs of impatience among the European Union leaders due to meet May for a 24-hour summit in Brussels.
EU diplomats said her request for a delay until June 30 seemed likely to be met by an EU preference for Britain to have completed formalities and begin a status-quo transition to departure before Europeans elect a new parliament from May 23.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's repetition that she would "fight to the last minute" to avoid a no-deal Brexit, highlighted the sense of danger. May could have an extension, ideally to May, she said, but if she fails to secure backing for a deal in London, Europeans are prepared for the worst.
The fate of one of Europe's major economic powers rests on whether its lawmakers will next week reverse two heavy defeats for the Withdrawal Agreement May agreed with the EU in November.
The Bank of England kept interest rates steady and said most businesses felt as ready as they could be for a no-deal Brexit that would likely hammer economic growth and jobs.
With parliament and political parties divided, deadlock could mean Britain lurching by default into legal limbo outside the EU at 11 p.m. (2300 GMT) on March 29.
"There are more non-options on the table than options ... I sometimes have the feeling that we are in the waiting room, a bit like Waiting for Godot. But Godot never came so I hope this time they will come," Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said in Brussels.
If the deal is saved, EU leaders would probably sign off remotely on an extension of the deadline to mid-May, or perhaps the end of June, before the new EU parliament convenes.
"We could consider a short extension conditional on a positive vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons," summit chair Donald Tusk told leaders on Wednesday.
Diplomats said a meeting of national envoys indicated that most governments would prefer Britain out by mid-May or oblige it to hold its own European Parliament election on May 23.
But if May fails next week, leaders expect to return for an emergency council at which Britain could either be given another year or more to sort out its crisis - if it can convince them it has a plan to do that - or be told it is leaving on Friday.
The small Northern Irish party, the DUP, that props up May's minority government, was no closer to backing her deal on Thursday, its spokesman said.
More than 700,000 people signed a petition on the British parliament's website calling for May to revoke its divorce notice and stay in the EU.
May's spokeswoman said she would not do that.
The other 27 states have struggled for three years since Britain voted 52-48 percent to leave to avoid disruption to their own economies and citizens of a hard Brexit.
Many now fear simply rolling over the problem for more weeks and months with no clear resolution in sight is doing more harm to a Union beset by populist nationalists likely to do well in the EU elections and by a fast-changing global economy in which China and the United States are posing new challenges.
City of London financial district chief Catherine McGuinness said a Brexit extension would only be a "sticking plaster" if deep-seated issues are left unresolved.
"The real question is what do we do in the event she loses again," one senior EU diplomat said. Concerns raised notably by French President Emmanuel Macron that Britain, long lukewarm on European integration, risked thwarting efforts to strengthen the bloc if it hung around in limbo, were "gaining ground rapidly".
May is to meet Macron ahead the summit after France threatened to reject her request for more time if she could not guarantee that parliament would approve her deal.
"The appetite for a long extension is limited," he said. Any offer would require all 27 leaders to agree - as well as May.
May said in a televised address late on Wednesday she opposed any further postponement, telling parliament to pick between her deal, a no-deal divorce or no Brexit.
"It is now time for MPs to decide," she said. "You want us to get on with it. And that is what I am determined to do."
Any long extension would be conditional on a British leader coming to Brussels next week with a clear plan of how it would use more time to resolve its stalemate, possibly through a new election or a second referendum, EU leaders have said.
Britain would be frozen out of key EU decisions while still paying in its full share of the bloc's budget, conditions likely to hit opposition in Britain.
May's foreign minister, Jeremy Hunt, said an emergency summit could offer a long extension but under "very onerous conditions".
Some in May's Conservative Party would rather leave without a deal that keeps Britain closely aligned with rules in its main trading partner, while many reject terms of the current deal that are intended to avoid disrupting traffic over Northern Ireland's land border once a transition ends in 2021 or 2022.
CORBYN IN BRUSSELS
The opposition Labour Party has opposed the deal, arguing for a closer relationship with the EU. Its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, was in Brussels on Thursday, meeting EU negotiator Michel Barnier and centre-left national leaders who will be attending the summit later with May.
All 28 leaders assemble in Brussels at 3 p.m. (1400 GMT). May will address her peers, repeating her request for a delay to June 30, before leaving the room while they discuss the issue.
The 27 are then expected to agree what will amount to a technical extension, intended to give Britain time to pass the necessary exit legislation - if the House of Commons approves the divorce package before March 29.
As Brexit is sapping EU resources, the leaders will also turn to other pressing issues on Thursday and Friday, including the state of their economies, ties with China, climate change and ringfencing the European elections from illegitimate interference.
Eyes will also be on Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who will be meeting his peers a day after his Fidesz party was suspended from Europe's centre-right alliance over a campaign against EU institutions and migration policies.Published: by Radio NewsHub