Boris Johnson will be left waiting for the EU’s terms for a further Brexit extension until Friday, with signs of momentum building behind Donald Tusk’s plan for a delay up to 31 January.
The French government has privately voiced its concerns about taking the pressure off MPs to vote for the deal, which they believe could be ratified in 15 days, but EU sources said the bloc was seeking a “solution that works for all” and avoids a no deal exit.
Tusk, the president of the European council, told Johnson in a phone call on Wednesday his reasons for “recommending the EU27 accept the UK request for an extension”.
The debate among the EU27 is whether to follow Tusk’s lead and offer a three-month delay that could be terminated following ratification of the deal, or seek to put pressure on MPs with a shorter extension, an idea raised by France’s president, Emmanuel Macron.
Tusk has suggested leaders can avoid convening for a summit if they agree to the three months sought in the prime minister’s letter of request through a “written procedure”.
After a 90-minute meeting of EU ambassadors on Wednesday evening, there appeared to be momentum behind Tusk’s strategy. “All agreed on the need for an extension to avoid a no-deal Brexit”, an EU source said. “The duration of an extension is still being discussed. There was a strong preference to use a written procedure to take the final decision.”
One EU diplomat said: “It felt like we were all going in one direction – towards a flextension to 31 January – but nothing is decided. It needs to work for everyone.”
The French ambassador is understood to have insisted that the EU avoid getting dragged in “domestic politics” in Britain, and questioned whether that would be a consequence of a longer extension. “If we give it, are we making an election happen?” said a source.
Johnson has threatened to push for a general election if the EU agrees to the delay of up to three months that he was instructed to seek on Saturday under the Benn act.
France’s ambassador had told the EU27 that any delay needed “to be associated with a justification”. “It needs to be proportionate,” he told the room. He added that there was no “automaticity” between the request tabled and the EU agreeing to it.
Macron has consistently been one the hawks among the EU27 who is wary of giving MPs more time for prevarication. He believes he was right in April when he pushed for a shorter, one-off delay to focus minds in the British parliament on the need to ratify the deal.
But the EU source said none of the ambassadors had spoken stridently against a delay to 31 January. “We need a mechanism to link the length of the delay with a justification. No one spoke about a 15-day extension, as we have heard before from France. It was all very reasonable.”
A source said: “A large number were perfectly happy with the Tusk proposal, others needed some time to reflect. Germany is among those but has been clear that it is fine with the plan.”
Monday has been pencilled in as a summit day if the leaders cannot agree and feel the need to debate the issue in person. “But no one wants that,” a diplomatic source said.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Brussels was seeking “clarification” from London.
If Johnson is able to agree with Jeremy Corbyn on a new timetable for passing the withdrawal agreement bill, and makes a public request, a delay to 1 December could still be on offer.
The Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the European parliament’s president, David Sassoli, backed Tusk on Wednesday.
Varadkar told reporters: “There is no extension agreed. The European Union has not agreed an extension for the UK as yet. President Tusk is currently in the process of consulting the 27 heads of state and government. We spoke this morning. He is recommending that we accept an extension until January 31 that could be terminated early if the House of Commons and House of Lords ratifies an agreement.
“I agreed to that but that’s not yet agreed by the 27 and we may have to have an emergency European council over the course of the next few days to discuss it if he can’t get consensus. My bags are always packed for Brussels and packed they are again.”
Sassoli pointed out there was only one request “on the table” and he said it deserved the EU27’s support.
He said: “I think it is advisable, as requested by Donald Tusk, that the European council should accept this extension. This extension will allow the United Kingdom to clarify its position and the European parliament to exercise its role.”