Brexit’s fate is “in the hands of our British friends” after EU leaders agreed to delay the departure date by at least two weeks, says Donald Tusk.
If MPs approve Theresa May’s withdrawal deal next week – Brexit would be delayed from 29 March until 22 May.
But if they do not, the UK has until 12 April to come up with a new plan.
European Council President Mr Tusk said that until 12 April, “anything is possible” including a much longer delay or cancelling Brexit altogether.
Speaking in Brussels on Friday, he said he was “really happy” the 27 EU leaders had reached a unanimous decision to extend the two-year Article 50 process, under which the UK was due to leave the EU next Friday.
“It means that until 12 April, anything is possible: A deal, a long extension if the United Kingdom decided to rethink its strategy, or revoking Article 50, which is a prerogative of the UK government.
“The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends. As the EU, we are prepared for the worst, but hope for the best. As you know, hope dies last.”
According to the final summit conclusions, the UK is expected to “indicate a way forward” before 12 April, if MPs do not approve the withdrawal deal negotiated with the EU, which would then be considered by the European Council.
Theresa May has been granted a little breathing space. The EU has allowed a few more days to try to get her deal through the House of Commons.
But it’s not the timetable that she chose.
And as things stand, the expectation that the compromise deal will get through is low.
And, more to the point, the government does not believe that it can hold off another attempt by a powerful cross-party group of MPs who are resolved to put Parliament forcibly in charge of the process to find alternatives.
Ministers are therefore today not just wondering about how to manage one last heave for the prime minister’s deal, but what they should do next, when – odds on – the whole issue is in the hands of the Commons, not Number 10.
The UK must decide by then whether it will be taking part in European Parliamentary elections from 23-26 May – if it does not, then a long delay would become “impossible”, Mr Tusk said.
Theresa May, who had requested an extension of the process until 30 June, has ruled out revoking Article 50, which would cancel Brexit, and has said it would be wrong to ask Britons to vote for candidates for the elections to the European Parliament, due to be held from 23-26 May, three years after they voted to leave the EU.
After she returned to the UK on Friday, Downing Street said she had been briefing ministers on her talks with EU leaders.
Her official spokesman said: “There is now a clear point of decision. If we are able to have a successful vote next week then we can pass the necessary legislation for ratifying the agreement and we can, as a country, be outside the European Union two months today.”
The UK’s departure date is still written in to law as next Friday, 29 March.
29 March: Current Brexit date in UK law
12 April: If MPs do not approve the withdrawal deal next week – “all options will remain open” until this date. The UK must propose a way forward before this date for consideration by EU leaders.
22 May: If MPs do approve the deal next week, Brexit will be delayed until this date
23-26 May: European Parliamentary elections are held across member states
Mrs May is expected to table secondary legislation – that has to go through the Commons and the Lords by next Friday – to remove 29 March from UK law.
The withdrawal deal, negotiated over two years between the UK and EU, sets out the terms of the UK’s departure from the bloc, including the “divorce bill”, the transition period, citizens’ rights and the controversial “backstop” arrangements, aimed at preventing a return to border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But it must be approved by UK MPs, who have already rejected it twice by large margins.
MPs are expected to vote for a third time on it next week, despite Commons Speaker John Bercow saying what is put forward must be substantially different to be voted on.
The Irish premier Leo Varadkar said the choices were now obvious: “It’s this agreement; no deal; or the parliament taking indicative votes for a much closer long-term relationship with the EU.”
French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists: “The European project must not remain a prisoner to Brexit,”
But Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the DUP – whose votes Mrs May relies on to support her minority government – said the prime minister had “missed an opportunity” to propose changes to the withdrawal agreement to help get it through the Commons.
“The prime minister has now agreed with the EU to kick the can down the road for another two weeks and humiliatingly revoke her oft-stated pledge that the UK would leave the EU on 29 March,” he said.
“Nothing has changed as far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned.”
Conservative backbench Brexiteer Michael Fabricant expressed disappointment that Brexit would not happen on 29 March, saying: “Even the Bank of England now say that a no-deal Brexit is workable given the tranche of legislation that has been passed since November on both sides of the Channel.”
And fellow Tory MP Steve Double said Mrs May was now “isolated” within the party.
“We need to find a way forward and I think that requires new leadership,” he said.