European commission president says 12 April ‘ultimate deadline’ for MPs to pass deal
Jean-Claude Juncker with Theresa May, who is to seek an extra article 50 extension to allow cross-party talks with Jeremy Corbyn. Photograph: Patrick Seeger/EPA
Theresa May’s appeal for a short Brexit extension has been rejected by Jean-Claude Juncker, who said that unless the withdrawal deal was passed within nine days the UK would crash out of the EU or have to sign up to a long delay.
Less than 24 hours after May had spelled out her new strategy from Downing Street, the European commission president dismissed her request for an extension of article 50 to 22 May.
Speaking to the European parliament, Juncker instead set an “ultimate deadline” of 12 April for the Commons to approve the withdrawal agreement.
“If it has not done so by then, no further short extension will be possible,” he said. “After 12 April, we risk jeopardising the European parliament elections, and so threaten the functioning of the European Union.”
Juncker said that at that point the UK would face a no-deal Brexit but that the EU would not “kick out” a member state, in a reference to the certain offer of a lengthy extension of article 50.
The EU27 is looking at an extension until at least the end of the year, with the most probable end date being the end of March 2020.
Juncker said: “Yet I believe that a no deal at midnight on 12 April is now a very likely scenario. It is not the outcome I want. But it is an outcome for which I have made sure the European Union is ready.
“We have been preparing since December 2017. We have always known that the logic of article 50 makes a no deal the default outcome. We have long been aware of the balance of power in the House of Commons.”
His comments represent a torpedoing of May’s plan to win an extension up to the eve of European elections at the end of next month. The prime minister was seeking the short extension in order to find a way forward with the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, and have time for the necessary legislation to pass parliament.
Juncker’s move does, however, give May a little more time to get the Commons to approve the withdrawal agreement, at the fourth time of asking, if she can find the votes.
If May is able to get the deal through by 12 April, the UK will stay a member state up until 22 May to allow the necessary withdrawal legislation to be passed. The EU27 had previously insisted MPs needed to approve the deal by 29 March. Advertisement
Juncker told MEPs: “In its decision 10 days ago, the European council paved the way for an extension of the article 50 negotiation period until the 22 May on the condition the withdrawal agreement was approved by the House of Commons by 29 March. This was not the case.
“In light of prime minister May’s statement last night, I believe we now have a few more days. If the United Kingdom is in a position to approve the withdrawal agreement with a sustainable majority by 12 April, the European Union should be prepared to accept a delay until 22 May.
“But 12 April is the ultimate deadline for the approval of the withdrawal agreement by the House of Commons.”
Juncker called on all sides in Westminster to compromise, offering to rewrite the political declaration to refer to anything from “a free trade agreement, to customs arrangements, to a customs union, all the way to the European Economic Area”.
He said: “The openness we have shown from the start could be laid out, in purest clarity.”
Juncker said the EU27 would start negotiations on the future relationship as soon as the withdrawal agreement was approved, adding: “Before the ink is dry, I would expect the same level of readiness on the United Kingdom side.”
He said the EU was prepared for the UK crashing out, and had legislation to minimise the worst effects on its interests.
“The measures we have taken are time-limited and unilateral. They provide a cushion for key EU interests at least until the end of the year. But disruption will be inevitable for citizens, for businesses and for almost every sector.”
Juncker also took aim at Conservative MPs who continue to argue for the Malthouse compromise, in which the UK pays for a transition period to prepare for a no deal.
“The United Kingdom will be affected more than the European Union because there is no such thing asa ‘managed or negotiated no-deal’ and there is no such thing as a ‘no-deal transition’. And whatever happens, the United Kingdom will still be expected to address the three main separation issues.”
The UK would need to pay its £39bn divorce bill, live up to the commitments on EU citizens in the UK and find a solution to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, he said.
“No deal does not mean no commitments, and these three issues will not go away. They will be a strict condition to rebuild trust and to start talking on the way forward.”
In a sign of the very real risk of no deal, Juncker hit back at the claims by one MEP that he had been the architect of Brexit. The commission president insisted: “It is not Juncker or the commission that forced the UK to hold a referendum. It was Mr Cameron.”
Earlier the EU’s financial affairs commissioner, Pierre Moscovici, warned that a no-deal Brexit would be a “radical” and “obviously very substantial” change for the UK, EU member states and European businesses.
“I would prefer rigorous checks and a few tailbacks of lorries rather than a health crisis or illegal trafficking,” he told journalists.
The EU’s biggest conundrum is how to ensure the Irish-UK border does not become a site of transfer of illegal or dangerous goods, while preserving the promise of all sides to avoid checkpoints.
“We would expect the UK to live up to its commitment to avoiding a hard border while protecting Ireland’s place in the internal market,” Moscovici said.
A British government source claimed France was pushing for checks on trade between Ireland and the continent.
“This is a real pickle for the EU side, who have slipped behind the UK by failing to publish their no deal border plans,” the source said. “French officials have been categorical that in a no-deal scenario there must be checks between Ireland and the rest of the EU if a hard border on the island of Ireland is to be avoided.”