By Elizabeth Piper, Robin Emmott and Alissa de Carbonnel
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - European Union leaders were poised to grant Prime Minister Theresa May a second delay to Britain's fraught exit at an emergency summit on Wednesday, after arguing over how long and on what terms.
French President Emmanuel Macron was pushing to withhold any commitment to extend Friday's deadline much beyond elections to the European Parliament on May 23-26 unless May binds herself, and any potentially more anti-EU successor, not to disrupt the workings of Brussels.
"Nothing can be taken for granted," Macron warned, voicing frustration with a lack of clarity from London nearly three years after Britons voted to leave the bloc.
Three weeks ago, Macron's impatience with France's historic cross-Channel rival dominated the last summit, when Brexit was put back by a fortnight. Diplomats said he would again face a more cautious line from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who said she favoured an extension of "several months".
"The question isn't whether there will be an extension but for how long and under what conditions," a senior diplomat said as May opened the summit by briefing her 27 peers on how she aims to deliver Brexit despite repeated failures in parliament.
Merkel had said on arrival that it was "very important" that May had launched preparations for an EU election on May 23 -- a vote that some see as bordering on the surreal and others as a virtual second referendum on Brexit.
MAY WANTS OUT SOON
Legally, Britain is due to leave the EU on Friday with no transition to new trading arrangements. But no one expected that to happen as leaders insisted they would not force Britain out in a disorderly departure.
"If they need a little more time, I think it's reasonable to discuss what that would be,"Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins said, noting that Britain could still leave without a deal, accept the deal that its parliament has rejected three times, or change its mind and stay in the EU.
May has asked the EU to wait until June 30 as she seeks help from her Labour opponents to build a majority in parliament in the coming weeks for her Brexit plan.
"I want us to be able to leave the European Union in a smooth and orderly way as soon as possible," she said.
"I've asked for an extension to June 30, but what is important is that the extension enables us to leave at the point at which we ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, so we could leave on May 22 and start to build our brighter future."
Some leaders, like Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babis, said Britain should have a full year more to sort itself out. Others, like Swedish premier Stefan Lofven, echoed Macron's concerns about the risks of a long extension for the functioning of the EU.
Summit chair Donald Tusk has proposed a "flextension" of nine months to a year.
If Britain does not elect EU lawmakers, it must leave, with or without a deal, on June 1, according to a draft summit agreement seen by Reuters. Otherwise, it would leave as soon as it ratifies the deal, or without one when the extension ends.
Macron, however, is seeking a further summit once it is clearer whether or not there will be an early ratification, or a British EU election.
Macron fears "blackmail" by pro-Brexit Conservatives seeking to take over from May and is arguing that, to extend its membership beyond June, Britain must formally forswear its right to block key decisions taken by the other 27 member states, notably on the EU budget and key executive appointments.
Paris wants to stipulate that, if granted an extension to, say, the end of this year, any British government would be unable to leave earlier unless it signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement, something May's rivals are unwilling to do.
In preparatory meetings, the Dutch, among others, argued that a long extension would increase pressure on pro-Brexit critics of May's deal to accept it for fear that a long delay would increase the probability of Britain staying in the EU.
EU leaders are exasperated with May's handling of a tortuous and potentially expensive divorce that many feel is a distraction from ensuring the bloc can hold its own beside the United States and China on trade and other issues.
After addressing the 27, May was due to withdraw while they debated. At the March summit, she spent the evening in Britain's delegation rooms in the EU summit building while the others dined together. Once they reached their conclusions, she was briefed by Tusk before they were made public.
The Northern Irish party that props up May's minority government said she was embarrassing the United Kingdom.
"Nearly three years after the referendum, the UK is today effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders," Democratic Unionist Party deputy leader Nigel Dodds said.
Across from the summit venue, the EU executive celebrated its part in funding a global project that produced the first picture of a black hole.
There was no shortage of ironic comments on social media. Investigative blogger Eliot Higgins tweeted: "We're now more certain about what black holes look like than what Brexit looks like."
(Reporting by Guy Faulconbridge in London, Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Gabriela Baczynska, Elizabeth Piper, Bart Meijer, Alissa de Carbonnel, Philip Blenkinsop, Robin Emmott, Alastair Macdonald, Francesco Guarascio, Clare Roth and Michel Rose in Brussels; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
This story has not been edited by Firstpost staff and is generated by auto-feed.
Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.
Updated Date: Apr 11, 2019 00:08:35 IST