Juncker: EU would not oppose an extension to Article 50
Jean-Claude Juncker has suggested that Britain could still be in the bloc for May's European elections.
The European Commission president Juncker said he could not rule out an extension to the Article 50 process resulting in the UK participating in the European Parliament vote.
But, arriving in Brussels for a meeting with fellow ministers, Lord Callanan insisted Theresa May had been clear that the March 29 deadline remained.
The prime minister has reportedly come under pressure from Cabinet ministers to seek an extension to Article 50 to avoid the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal.
Juncker said no-one on the EU side would oppose an extension to Article 50 which kept the UK in the bloc.
On the prospect of the UK electing MEPs to the new parliament, he told German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung that such a scenario was “difficult to imagine”, saying it would be a “belated joke of history” but he did not rule it out.
But Lord Callanan said: “The prime minister has been very clear that we intend to leave on March 29, that’s what Article 50 says and that’s what our domestic legislation says.”
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At a cabinet meeting, ministers were briefed by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on his latest talks with Brussels as intensive efforts continue to resolve the deadlock over the Northern Ireland backstop.
Barclay and attorney general Geoffrey Cox were said to have had a “productive” discussion with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in the Belgian capital.
Lord Callanan said the EU had acknowledged that the backstop was “only ever intended to be temporary” and “we are seeking to explore with them how we can codify that in a legally-binding way that is acceptable to our Parliament”.
The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) confirmed the discussions with Barnier included the so-called “Malthouse compromise” being worked on by Tory MPs in the Alternative Arrangements Working Group.
However, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for the proposals - intended to replace the backstop with a basic free trade deal combined with technological solutions to avoid the need for physical border checks - on the EU side.
“While the commission engaged seriously with these proposals, it expressed concerns about their viability to resolve the backstop,” a DExEU spokesman said.