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E.U. agrees Brexit delay needed as Britain squabbles over election

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has demanded an election to break the paralysis that has gripped British politics for over three years.
Anti-Brexit remain in the European Union supporter Steve Bray, left, protests next to banners placed by pro-Brexit leave the EU supporters.
Anti-Brexit remain in the European Union supporter Steve Bray, left, protests next to banners placed by pro-Brexit leave the EU supporters backdropped by the Houses of Parliament in London.Matt Dunham / AP

BRUSSELS — European Union leaders on Friday agreed in principle to delay Brexit, but set no new date, European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.

The news came as after Prime Minister Boris Johnson demanded an election to break the paralysis that has gripped British politics for over three years.

Just a week before Britain was due to exit the E.U., Johnson admitted that he would not meet his "do or die" deadline to leave the E.U. on Oct. 31 and demanded at Dec. 12 election to end what he cast as the "nightmare" of the Brexit crisis.

As Brussels mulls another delay, it must take into account the continued battle in London over how, when and whether to leave the bloc.

Johnson said in a letter to opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn Thursday that he would give Parliament more time to approve his Brexit deal by Nov. 6 but lawmakers must on Monday back a December election, Johnson's third attempt to try to force a snap vote.

"Prolonging this paralysis into 2020 would have dangerous consequences," Johnson said. "If I win a majority in this election, we will then ratify the great new deal that I have negotiated, get Brexit done in January and the country will move on."

Corbyn said he would wait to see what the E.U. decides on a Brexit delay before deciding which way to vote on Monday, repeating that he could only back an election when the risk of Johnson taking Britain out of the E.U. without a deal to smooth the transition was off the table.

Johnson will push ahead with plans to leave the E.U. and with the government's domestic agenda if lawmakers fail to back a snap election, his spokesman said on Friday.

An official from the bloc said the choice was between three months and a "two-tier" lag but warned that a decision might not come just yet.

According to a draft decision by the 27 E.U. countries staying on together after Brexit, which was seen by Reuters on Thursday evening, the delay would be granted by the bloc "with the view to allowing for the finalization of the ratification" of the divorce agreement sealed with Johnson last week.

While the draft text, which will be debated in Brussels on Friday, for now leaves the new Brexit date blank, it said the split could take place earlier if ratification is completed earlier — an idea known as "flextension," an amalgamation of "flexible" and "extension."

"Consequently, the withdrawal should take place on the first day of the month following the completion of the ratification procedure, or on (blank), whichever is earliest," it read.

The E.U. official explained: "It's basically between a three-month flextension or a two-tier one."

Under the first idea, Britain would leave on Jan. 31, 2020, three months after the current departure date due on Oct.31. The second one would include a second specific date when Britain could leave.

French President Emmanuel Macron has previously managed to sway the bloc's extension decisions significantly from the plans prepared in advance of the bloc's meetings and the line Paris would take is another risk factor on Friday.

The draft text also said: "The further extension cannot be allowed to undermine the regular functioning of the (European) Union and its institutions," a clause the bloc hopes would shield its vital interests from the protracted Brexit drama.

Johnson won the leadership of the ruling Conservative party to become prime minister in a minority government by staking his career on getting Brexit done by Oct. 31, but after Parliament rejected his proposed legislative timetable on Tuesday he will fail to do that.

Brexit was initially supposed to have taken place on March 29 but Johnson's predecessor Theresa May was forced to delay twice — first to April 12 and then to Oct. 31 — as Parliament defeated her Brexit deal by margins of between 58 and 230 votes earlier this year.