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France stands apart as EU weighs UK Brexit extension

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Via Financial Times

France clashed with the rest of the EU over the length of a Brexit extension on Friday as member states struggled to forge a consensus over how to respond to the deadlock in Westminster.

Ambassadors meeting in Brussels were in “full agreement” that there was a need for an extension beyond October 31, according to one EU official, and they think the decision can be reached in a written procedure rather than via an emergency summit of leaders. 

But EU states were unable to coalesce around a new exit date, with France refusing to commit to a long extension. The other member states have swung behind Donald Tusk, the EU council president, who is pushing for an extension to January 31, in line with UK prime minister’s Boris Johnson’s request last weekend. 

France’s representative told the meeting a shorter extension would keep the pressure on the UK to “find a solution” and that ultimately a no-deal would hurt Britain more than the union, according to an official in the discussion.

The inconclusive result pushes the uncertainty over an extension into next week, which is notionally Britain’s final week in the EU unless the other member states reach a unanimous agreement to extend. Ambassadors are set to reconvene on Monday or Tuesday — after a planned vote on a UK general election — for further discussions. 

“It ended up 26 against one,” said one diplomat of the French position. “We should not be the ones who provoke no-deal.”

An EU diplomat said France was becoming a “lone wolf” inside the bloc. “If France really wanted to become the leader of the European pack, it would probably be better served by not irritating friends” said the diplomat.

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Mr Johnson on Thursday conceded defeat on his promise to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 and challenged MPs to give him a general election on December 12. If he wins Commons backing for the election in a vote on Monday, the prime minister wants to bring the withdrawal agreement bill back to parliament, giving MPs until November 6 to secure Brexit.

The uncertainty in Westminster is making it more difficult for EU member states to decide how to handle the need for an extension, but all remain anxious to avoid a no-deal outcome. 

Much depends on what the UK’s opposition Labour party will do in next week’s election vote, although initial signs are that they will join other opposition parties in rejecting Mr Johnson’s move.

Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, told the broadcaster ITV on Friday that he wanted Mr Johnson to come to parliament next week and rule out a no-deal Brexit.

Mr Corbyn did not rule out an early election but poured cold water over having one on December 12, saying it was “odd for many reasons — it’s so near Christmas, it’s after universities finish their terms”.

France has been arguing that a long extension could reduce the pressure on Westminster to decide in favour of Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal forged with EU negotiator Michel Barnier.

Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, wrote on Twitter on Thursday: “What we want is clarity. The question is to know why we are giving extra time, because time alone is not a solution. Let’s wait to see if there will be elections before we get into fictional politics.”

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France’s solitary stance mirrors the approach of president Emmanuel Macron in April, when he held out against an overwhelming majority of presidents and prime ministers who supported a long Brexit delay of nine months or more. The leaders instead signed up to an extension to October 31. 

“There is a consensus that the EU will agree on an extension,” said one EU diplomat on Friday. “Talks on the length of the extension will continue at the beginning of next week — also in light of developments in London.”

The diplomat added that the mood in the room on Friday pointed firmly in the direction of a “flextension” until January 31. This implies that Britain’s membership would end sooner than that date if Mr Johnson can get his legislation passed through the Houses of Parliament. 

Spain and Italy were among the countries to push hard the EU to accept Mr Tusk’s plan for an extension until January 31. Germany has also firmly backed the plan, leaving France in an isolated position and facing complaints from other diplomats that Paris risks dragging other governments into Britain’s internal political debate. 

Additional reporting by Mehreen Khan and Michael Peel

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