British Prime Minister Boris Johnson plans to delay the deadline to leave the European Union — something he’s been apprehensive to support so far — if no agreement is reached by the weekend, London’s top Brexit negotiator said Wednesday.
British Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said Johnson will comply with the Benn Act, passed by Parliament last month, that mandates an extension if no deal is present by Oct. 19. The prime minister has previously indicated he’ll comply with the law, but has also repeatedly vowed to complete the exit on Oct. 31 — even when negotiators haven’t even been close to an agreement.
“I can confirm, as the prime minister has repeatedly set out, that firstly the government will comply with the law,” Barclay said. “And secondly, the government will comply with undertakings given to the court in respect of the law.”
Johnson was expected to communicate plans for the extension in a letter to the EU.
If no agreement is achieved by Saturday and Johnson does seek the extension, the new deadline for Britain to depart the 28-member alliance would be Jan. 31. The only other option is for British lawmakers to approve leaving without a deal, which experts believe is a virtual impossibility.
Johnson once said he would “rather be dead in a ditch” than ask for another extension.
Negotiators held discussions in Belgium late into Tuesday night and reconvened early Wednesday. A Brexit summit is scheduled for Thursday. Some experts believe if no deal is reached by the end of the summit, a delay is all but inevitable.
“We’re committed to leaving on Oct. 31,” Barclay said. “We think the best way of doing that is with a deal, to leave in a smooth and orderly way.”
If the EU approves a deal late this week, British lawmakers could be asked to convene Saturday to sign off on it, Barclay said.
A government spending watchdog cautioned in an analysis Wednesday leaving without an EU-backed agreement would result in significant freight delays, more crime and fewer customs checks for migrants crossing the borders.
The National Audit Office said in the report the remaining EU states could impose border controls if Britain leaves without a deal, and warned businesses would not be prepared for bureaucratic and problematic fallout involving Northern Ireland.
“This could include delays for goods crossing the border, increased opportunities for tax and regulatory non-compliance and less information to inform checks of people crossing the border,” the NAO report said.
The report also warned organized crime could subsequently exploit weaknesses produced by a no-deal exit.
“It is impossible to know exactly what would happen,” it states. “This includes supporting businesses and individuals in meeting their new obligations, mitigating risks of the border becoming vulnerable to fraud, smuggling or other criminal activity and activating civil contingency plans if necessary.”