EU debates Brexit delay as Johnson eyes election
European leaders were deciding Wednesday whether to postpone Brexit and for how long, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson's eyes turned towards a snap general election.
EU ambassadors met in Brussels to coordinate the response from their national capitals after European Council president Donald Tusk recommended approving a three-month delay beyond the current October 31 deadline.
But no decision was expected before Friday. Some countries -- in particular France -- signalled that they would seek a much shorter extension.
In tense parliamentary votes on Tuesday, Johnson won preliminary backing for the divorce deal he agreed with the EU, which would have seen Britain leave the bloc at the end of the month.
But, in a fresh twist to the divorce saga, MPs also rejected his bid to curtail parliamentary scrutiny of the bill, refusing to rush it through in a matter of days.
Tusk reacted by recommending the EU's 27 other member states grant a flexible extension until January 31, 2020, which could be be cut short if Britain ratifies the deal before then.
Johnson had sent such a request for a three-month delay but only because he was obliged to do so under a law passed by rebel MPs. He continues to insist that Britain should leave at the end of the month.
Brussels officials are concerned that if they grant too short an extension this could be seen as interfering in Britain's domestic political timetable, by limiting the space for a pre-Brexit election.
"The European Parliament's Brexit Steering Group met today and is of the opinion that a flextension, not going beyond January 31, is the only way forward," steering group coordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted.
But the decision on how long a prolongation will last will fall to EU member state leaders, many of whom would prefer a shorter delay to keep the pressure on Westminster to approve the deal quickly.
France's minister for European affairs, Amelie de Montchalin, said Paris was open to a Brexit delay "of a few days," while Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told Tusk in a call that he supports the January 31 date.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman said the request would "not fail due to Germany", but other senior officials have suggested Berlin's patience is finite.
- SHORT OR LONG DELAY? -
Diplomats were tight-lipped going in to their meeting in Brussels.
Earlier one of them told AFP: "My impression is the meeting will serve to have a first picture where individual member states stand.
"The position of Tusk is known but some others want a short-term extension," he said.
Tusk wants EU leaders to approve the January 31 extension "by written procedure".
However, officials said that if the members' positions are far apart an emergency summit could be held on Monday next week.
As it stands, without their unanimous agreement, Britain is due to crash out of the EU in a week's time.
On Tuesday, Johnson told MPs that if parliament decided to "delay everything until January or possibly longer, in no circumstances can the government continue with this.
"We will have to go forward to a general election. I will argue at that election: let's get Brexit done."
A three-month delay would give time to hold a UK general election before the New Year -- though calling the vote would require the support of two-thirds of MPs.
The Labour main opposition has spurned two previous chances to call an election.
The Britain Elects poll aggregator puts Johnson's Conservatives on 35 percent, Labour on 25 percent, the anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats on 18 percent, the Brexit Party on 11 percent and the Greens on four percent.
Polling expert John Curtice told BBC radio that the polls were moving in favour of the Conservatives, putting Johnson on course for a small but relatively comfortable 20-seat majority.
- Four decades of membership -
In the June 2016 EU referendum, 52 percent of voters in the UK backed leaving the bloc after four decades.
But MPs three times rejected a Brexit divorce deal struck by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May.
Johnson, who took office in July, defied expectations by striking a revised deal last Thursday, and seemed relieved that MPs voted positively for it to be considered further.
It covers EU citizens' rights, Britain's financial settlements, a post-Brexit transition period until at least the end of 2020 and new trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.