Angela Merkel has told EU leaders a Brexit extension would be unavoidable if British MPs vote down the deal agreed with Boris Johnson.
During private talks at the EU summit, the German chancellor told her fellow leaders they could not pretend an extension would not be offered to the UK if it was requested, according to a source familiar with the discussions.
Merkel framed Brexit as a historic issue weighing on the EU and said leaders had a responsibility not to push the UK out without a deal if there was a request for further delay.
Her remarks contrast with the public statement of Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, who said he was “ruling out” an extension. Although he has no power to veto any delay, he said: “If we have a deal, we have a deal, and there is no need for prolongation.”
In reality, the positions of Juncker and Merkel are much closer. Juncker, who has previously favoured long Brexit extensions, told EU leaders that talk of an extension was not helpful.
The conversation took place on Thursday, shortly before EU leaders announced their unanimous backing for the new deal with Johnson.
Merkel told Johnson not to tell the British public that EU leaders had ruled out an extension. While EU leaders are anxious for the Brexit deal to pass, they do not wish to be drawn into the vortex of British politics.
During a 25-minute meeting with EU leaders, Johnson expressed confidence he could get a majority for his Brexit deal in a rare Saturday sitting of the Commons.
Thanking the EU for the deal, the prime minister made a short, upbeat statement in which he referred to his school days in Brussels. Johnson attended the European school in Uccle, which educates the children of EU officials.
Johnson also touched on the UK’s long relationship with Europe, suggesting Britain had never been truly European but always half in, half out. It was a businesslike meeting that made some think of the unemotional signing of divorce papers.
Once he had left the room, EU leaders discussed how to respond to any rejection of the deal by the Commons. Some EU leaders, such as Luxembourg’s Xavier Bettel and Malta’s Joseph Muscat, voiced frustration at the idea of another extension.
Donald Tusk, the president of the European council, agreed with Merkel. He later told journalists he would consult EU leaders if there was a request for an extension. But he did not organise a detailed discussion on extension.
“We have not been focusing on the question today, if or when,” Merkel later told journalists. “It’s a free decision to be taken by the British parliament.”
With the vote in the Commons on a knife-edge, EU leaders are also thinking about the future relationship with the UK. Merkel said the EU now had a clearer idea of the kind of future relationship the UK was seeking, in contrast to the picture sketched out by Theresa May.
“At the time [under May] it wasn’t clear what the future relationship should look like, whether there would be a membership in the single market or not,” she said.
Merkel, who has recently described the UK as a “potential competitor”, said it was clear the UK would be a “third country”, ie completely outside the EU’s economic system, “and we will quickly begin negotiating a free-trade agreement with that third country, Great Britain.”