European Union leaders will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year to find a way through its domestic deadlock, the chair of next week's EU summit said on Thursday.
"I will appeal to the EU27 to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it," European Council President Donald Tusk said on Twitter, referring to the 27 other national leaders who will meet Prime Minister Theresa May next Thursday.
A senior EU official said Tusk believed Britain would, if May fails to avoid a third parliamentary defeat next week for the Brexit deal she has negotiated with Brussels, need at least a year and possibly much longer to find a national consensus on how - and indeed whether - it wants to quit the bloc.
Such an extension, which would depend on May lodging such a request, would require Britain to elect members of the European Parliament when all states hold votes on May 23-26, the senior official said. It would require unanimous support among the 27 other member states, whose positions are so far unclear.
In the run-up to the two-day quarterly summit, Tusk will travel to meet leaders including, on Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and, on Tuesday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
A number of leading EU figures have been calling for the bloc to refuse any extension beyond the May elections, or at the latest beyond July 2 when the new EU legislature convenes. Macron has voiced doubts about a longer extension, while Merkel has appeared more open to giving Britain time.
Tusk, however, while hoping May can win lawmakers' support for her Brexit deal before the summit, believes a short extension would achieve little and is urging leaders not to close down options to give Britain more time. That could include holding a general election or a new referendum on EU membership.
May, as she prepares for further parliamentary votes on Thursday on the question of extension beyond the March 29 withdrawal date, has said she could seek an extension to June 30 if lawmakers back her deal next week. But she would seek a much longer delay rather than leave without a deal.
EU discussion of a very long extension to the two-year deadline could bolster May's tactic of using that as a threat to persuade hardline Brexit supporters to back her deal rather than risk Britain not leaving the EU at all.
EU officials say many in Brussels and in national capitals are in two minds about delaying Brexit. Many feel the process is distracting the bloc from more pressing business and its May elections. But none relish the risk that Britain might end up leaving chaotically without a deal.
The prospect of Britain returning lawmakers to the European Parliament is also a divisive issue. The centre-right European People's Party (EPP), to which Merkel belongs, has no British member as May's Conservatives broke away a decade ago. The return of British Labour lawmakers to the chamber could push the centre-left close to parity with the EPP, according to polls.
A British EU election would also bolster the presence of anti-EU forces in the parliament, a development Macron, Merkel and others would prefer to avoid.
In a reply to Tusk's tweet, Guy Verhofstadt, the liberal leader and Brexit coordinator in the European Parliament, hardened his calls for Britain to be cast out as soon as possible unless its lawmakers can agree on a clear strategy.
"Under no circumstances an extension in the dark!" he tweeted. "Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation."