London (AFP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged MPs on Monday to back an early election to resolve the political deadlock over Brexit, after the European Union agreed to postpone Britain’s departure date for up to three months.
Johnson had promised repeatedly to leave the EU on October 31 but was forced to ask Brussels to postpone after MPs refused to back his divorce agreement.
Ambassadors from the other 27 EU member states agreed to the request on Monday but proposed that Britain could leave earlier if the deal passes parliament.
The delay is a major setback for Johnson, who said he would rather “die in a ditch” than prolong the tortuous Brexit process that began with the 2016 EU referendum.
He sought to regain the initiative by calling an election for early December — hoping that MPs might ratify his exit agreement before then.
“Nobody in this House relishes the idea of a general election, because nobody wants to put the public to this inconvenience,” Johnson told the House of Commons.
“But across this country there is a widespread view that this parliament has run its course.”
Johnson, who leads a minority Conservative government, is expected to lose a vote on an election later Monday.
The proposal requires the support of two-thirds of 650 MPs but opposition parties do not want his Brexit deal.
They fear that if it does not pass, he might delay an election until February, risking a “no deal” exit that many fear would cause huge economic disruption.
If defeated, Johnson is expected to introduce a bill to legislate for an election, which would enshrine a date in law and require only a simple majority — and could pass.
– Johnson urges no more delay –
The EU’s approval of a third delay, which Johnson said in a letter to European Council leader Donald Tusk he had no option but to accept, comes three days before the latest Brexit deadline.
“The EU27 has agreed that it will accept the UK’s request for a Brexit flextension until 31 January 2020,” Tusk said earlier.
Johnson accepted the offer in a letter to Tusk and other EU leaders a few hours later — although he repeated his opposition to a delay.
He also called on EU members states “to make clear that a further extension after January 31 is not possible. This is plenty of time to ratify our deal”.
According to a copy of the agreement seen by AFP, if Johnson convinces the British parliament to approve an amicable divorce accord in the coming weeks, Brexit could be on November 30 or December 31.
This is not impossible — British MPs last week backed Johnson’s deal in principle but refused to accept his plan to rush through its ratification before October 31.
However, the legislation required to implement the treaty could get bogged down in the scrutiny process, and some supporters of the plan could yet change their minds.
In the meantime, the EU text says London must nominate a senior official to serve on the next European Commission and must agree not to try to reopen the divorce agreement.
After London gave its formal approval, Tusk will ask the EU capitals to sign off on it, likely on Tuesday or Wednesday.
A delay could have been agreed last week but Paris was reluctant, concerned it would do nothing to boost the chances of Britain deciding how to handle the end of its five-decade relationship with the EU.
More than three years after Britons voted 52-48 percent for Brexit in a 2016 referendum, the country and parliament remain divided.
Johnson, a leader of the “Leave” campaign, took office in July this year vowing to take Britain out of the European Union on October 31.
But MPs rebelled against his threat to sever 46 years of ties without a deal and passed a law requiring him to seek a delay if they refused to accept his divorce terms.
The Labour party dislikes Johnson’s Brexit deal and says it will not back an election until his threat of leaving the EU with no deal at all is removed.
“This is a prime minister who cannot be trusted,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told parliament. “Every promise this prime minister makes he abandons.”