The EU on Monday agreed to grant the UK a Brexit extension until January 31, removing the risk of a no-deal departure on Halloween and creating the political space for Westminster to decide on the timing of a general election.
National ambassadors from the 27 other EU member states approved a “flextension” that could last as long as the end of January but which gives the UK the possibility to leave the bloc sooner if its withdrawal agreement has been ratified.
It came as Boris Johnson prepared to ask the House of Commons to vote on Monday for a general election on December 12 — something that the prime minister is expected to fail to secure because he needs two-thirds of MPs to back him and Labour has so far indicated the party will not support his proposal.
However, Downing Street insiders said if Mr Johnson loses the vote, the government would bring forward legislation to try to secure a pre-Christmas election.
Mr Johnson’s plan B has a better chance of success — because he only needs a simple majority of MPs to back election legislation.
The EU27 decision means the bloc has granted a request for a Brexit delay made by the UK government earlier this month after Mr Johnson was forced by MPs to go down this route.
The move sounds the death knell for Mr Johnson’s “do or die” bid to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.
The EU27 agreement on the Brexit extension was reached after a flurry of diplomatic activity over the weekend to win over France.
French president Emmanuel Macron pushed back last week against attempts by European Council president Donald Tusk to rally countries behind a Brexit delay to January 31.
Paris argued that Britain had to explain clearly what it would do with a Brexit extension, and warned that pressure had to be kept up on the Commons to ratify Mr Johnson’s draft Brexit treaty.
“It’s true that France had a fairly tough position,” said one EU official. “But there is now the perspective of quick British elections, which changes the picture.”
The text agreed by the EU27 leaves open the possibility for Britain to leave on December 1 or on New Year’s Day if its withdrawal treaty has been ratified in time.
Mr Tusk said in a tweet on Monday that the Brexit extension decision will now “be formalised through a written procedure”, avoiding the need for an EU leaders’ summit.
Brussels’ understanding is that the terms of the so-called Benn act oblige Mr Johnson to accept the extension that has been granted by the EU, given it runs to the January 31 date sought by the British parliament.
The act says that, were such as extension to be offered by the EU, Mr Johnson “must immediately” notify Mr Tusk that the UK agrees to it.
Once that is done, the EU expects to complete its own written sign-off within 24 hours. One EU official said it should all be done by Tuesday or Wednesday.
As part of the Brexit delay decision, EU leaders will underline that, after more than two years of talks the negotiations on the terms of the UK’s departure are definitively over.
In a clear message to the Labour party that is interested in amending Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal, an EU27 declaration “firmly” excludes any reopening of talks in the future.
It also rules out negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship until the Brexit deal is ratified.
In April EU leaders were similarly categorical that negotiations on the withdrawal agreement finalised by Theresa May were over, when they granted Britain a Brexit extension to October 31.
Despite insisting at the time “that there can be no opening” of the draft Brexit treaty, they went on to agree to the move with Mr Johnson.
But the EU has crafted harder language against reopening the revised withdrawal agreement in the new text.
Another section underlines Britain’s obligation to nominate a member of the next European Commission to serve until Brexit happens: something Mr Johnson has so far refused to do.