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World EU agrees to put Brexit on hold until at least April 12 as May seeks to win approval in Britain

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves a press conference on March 22, the first day of an EU summit in Brussels focused on Brexit.

LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Union leaders have agreed to delay Britain’s departure from the EU until at least April 12 in order to give Ms. May more time to win approval for her withdrawal agreement in Parliament.

Britain was scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 and Ms. May had been trying for months to get members of Parliament to approve a withdrawal agreement she struck with the EU last fall. But the deal has been rejected twice by MPs, leaving Ms. May scrambling to try once more to get it approved. This week she asked the EU to agree to delay Brexit until June 30.

After a lengthy meeting on Thursday in Brussels, EU leaders agreed unanimously to extend the Brexit deadline to May 22, but only if Ms. May can get the deal approved next week. If it’s defeated for a third time, Brexit would be delayed to April 12 and Ms. May will “have to indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by [EU leaders],” the leaders said in a statement.

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“What this means in practice is that until that date all options will remain open and the cliff-edge date will be delayed,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, which represents EU leaders. “The U.K. government will still have a choice of a no deal, a deal, a long extension or revoking [Brexit].”

The dates are key because elections to the European Parliament begin on May 23 and Britain has to notify the EU if it plans to participate in that vote by April 12. “If [Britain] has not decided to do so by then, the option of a long extension will automatically become impossible,” Mr. Tusk said.

EU officials said that even if the Brexit deal is voted down, the EU could still extend Brexit beyond April 12 if Ms. May presented a new plan.

Ms. May said she welcomed the new deadline but she noted that Britain could still crash out of the EU on April 12. “At this point we would either leave with no deal, or put forward an alternative plan,” she said Thursday. "I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision.”

She added that she was against Britain participating in the European elections. "I believe strongly that it would be wrong to ask people in the U.K. to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU,” she said. “What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner.”

The agreement gives Ms. May more time to win over opponents to the deal, most of whom are within her Conservative Party caucus as well as Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up Ms. May’s minority government. She has been negotiating with the rebels and the DUP ever since the deal was voted down for a second time last week. She faces a tough task, and so far there are few signs enough MPs have changed their minds. Based on the previous vote on the deal, Ms. May has to get 75 MPs to switch their vote and back the deal.

Her job became even harder this week when the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, ruled that Ms. May cannot keep introducing the same deal to Parliament. Instead, it must be substantially changed before MPs can vote on it again, Mr. Bercow said. That is next to impossible because EU officials reiterated on Thursday that they won’t negotiate any more changes. Ms. May also infuriated many MPs on Wednesday when she blamed Parliament for delaying Brexit during a televised address to the country.

The growing uncertainty over Brexit prompted Britain’s largest business group and biggest labour organization to issue a joint letter calling on Ms. May to rule out a no-deal Brexit, secure a workable extension to the deadline and consider alternatives to her withdrawal agreement.

“We cannot overstate the gravity of this crisis for firms and working people,” said the letter signed by Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the Confederation of British Industry, and Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the Trades Union Congress. “Together we represent millions of workers and tens of thousands of businesses. It is on their behalf that we are writing to you to ask you to change your Brexit approach.”

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