Europe’s leaders are considering whether to agree to UK calls for Brexit to be delayed as Theresa May’s efforts to build support for her deal at Westminster suffered a fresh setback.
MPs backed a delay to Brexit beyond the scheduled date of March 29 in dramatic parliamentary scenes which saw a majority of the Conservative party in the opposite lobby from the British Prime Minister.
But any delay will require the agreement of the other 27 European Union members, with talks about any conditions for an extension set to begin before leaders gather at a summit next week.
European Council president Donald Tusk was meeting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague today before talks with the bloc’s key power brokers Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron on Monday.
On Tuesday Mr Tusk will travel to Dublin to meet Leo Varadkar before the summit in Brussels on Thursday.
Mr Tusk said: “I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.”
But European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt questioned why the leaders of the 27 should grant an extension if Mrs May was “not ready for a cross-party approach to break the current deadlock” in the Commons.
The British Prime Minister is set to bring her Brexit deal back to the Commons for a third meaningful vote next week, and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox has sought to provide further legal assurances about the backstop.
But Mrs May’s hopes of persuading Eurosceptics and the DUP to back the deal were dealt a blow after the “Star Chamber” of Brexiteer lawyers rejected Mr Cox’s latest assessment.
The group of lawyers, led by veteran Tory Bill Cash, said a suggestion that the UK could use the Vienna Convention – the international agreement that lays down the rules about treaties – to unilaterally pull out of the backstop was “badly misconceived”.
The panel of lawyers, which significantly also includes DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, rejected the supplementary legal advice from Mr Cox.
The Attorney General’s advice hinges on Article 62 of the Vienna Convention, which says that if there has been “a fundamental change of circumstances” following the conclusion of a treaty “which was not foreseen by the parties”, then the countries involved would be allowed to withdraw from it.
Mr Cox said: “It is in my view clear and undoubted in those exceptional circumstances that international law provides the (UK) with the right to terminate the Withdrawal Agreement.”
But the Brexit-backing lawyers said “given the high burden that a state must meet to use it, and given the extreme reluctance of international courts and tribunals to accept it” the Vienna Convention route “supplies no assurance whatsoever that the UK could terminate the Withdrawal Agreement in a lawful manner”.
After a chaotic week in the Commons, the Tory party appears deeply divided from the top down.
More than half of Tory MPs – including seven Cabinet ministers – voted against Mrs May’s motion to put back the date when Britain leaves the EU.
But if her deal is rejected for a third time, she believes any extension would have to be far longer and would involve the UK taking part in European Parliament elections in May.
The Taoiseachsaid: “I think we need to be open to any request they make, listen attentively and be generous in our response.”
A spokesman for the European Commission said it “takes note of tonight’s votes”, adding that president Jean-Claude Juncker was “in constant contact with all leaders”.