THE BRITISH prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to Berlin and Paris on April 9th to meet her counterparts, Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron. She was trying to persuade them to back a further delay to Brexit, until June 30th, despite considerable scepticism among exasperated European leaders as to whether her plan could work. Some, doubtful about Britain’s ability to agree on what kind of Brexit it wants by that date, want a much longer extension. After her meeting with Mrs May, Mrs Merkel suggested that a delay could run to the end of 2019, or even the beginning of 2020. The matter is due to be decided at a summit in Brussels on April 10th.
European leaders, like most British MPs, are loth to see Britain crash out of the European Union without a deal on April 12th, the current deadline. Nonetheless, having seen the prime minister’s own plan defeated in Parliament three times, they want to see evidence that her government has another way forward. That, however, remains murky. Mrs May has turned to the opposition for help, but negotiations between her team and the Labour Party have so far made little progress. Both sides have made nice noises about the talks, but the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, insists that there has so far been no “movement” in the government’s position and so little sign of a compromise.
The main sticking-point in the cross-party talks is the question of a customs union with the EU. Labour wants Britain to remain in one permanently, but this is anathema to Tory Brexiteers. They are, in any case, deeply unhappy that their party is now going begging, as they see it, to Mr Corbyn. There are other areas of disagreement. Many Labour MPs want a second referendum on whatever Brexit deal is agreed; Mrs May, and most Tories, are firmly opposed to this. Equally, Labour is concerned that any promises it makes to Mrs May could be quickly unpicked by her successor. A Tory party leadership election is expected as soon as the Brexit deal, in whatever form it takes, is out of the way.
Meanwhile Parliament has contributed another complication to the Brexit imbroglio. On April 8th it passed a bill brought by Yvette Cooper, a Labour MP, which forces the prime minister to request a Brexit extension rather than deliberately crash out of the EU without a deal. The government opposed the bill, claiming it was unnecessary as Mrs May was already asking for an extension. But MPs, a large majority of whom are against a no-deal exit, wanted this enshrined in law, to prevent any backsliding by the government. In reality, as Mrs May will find out in Brussels, the question of whether Britain gets an extension or crashes out is not in the hands of either the prime minister or Parliament, but the leaders of the 27 other members of the EU. On April 10th they will tell Britain its fate.