The European Union is poised to take control of Britain’s exit by rejecting Theresa May’s request for a three-month delay and setting a new withdrawal date of no later than 22 May.
The prime minister is seeking an extension of the negotiating period to 30 June to allow the necessary legislation to be passed should she finally get MPs to back her deal next week.
But EU ambassadors at a meeting late on Wednesday night agreed that the risks of having the UK as a member state beyond 23 May, when European elections are due, were too high.
Sources said that during the discussions some member states had favoured a longer period and some a shorter but that the room coalesced around 22 May as the absolute limit.
The heads of state and government will hold a discussion this afternoon, after being addressed by Theresa May, and will have to agree unanimously on the extension on the date to be written into its summit communique.
The 22 May has to be the limit, one senior diplomat said. The reason is that there has got to be a very clear message from the European council.
Yes, to a short extension on condition that the prime minister passes her deal through the Commons. But beyond that it is utterly complicated. It cannot be done without British MEPs having been elected.
The position taken by the ambassadors represents a shift in mood of the member states who had been reluctant to accept the European commission’s conclusion that an extension could not go beyond 23 May without British MEPs being elected.
The EU’s legal service had indicated that 1 July was the real legal backstop for an extension as it is on the 2 July that the parliament convenes.
The prime minister’s insistence in her letter seeking an extension, and in the Commons, that she would not hold elections while in Downing Street helped to crystallise the EU’s thinking, sources said.