The woman lined up to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as EU commission president has said she is open to extending Brexit talks past October, a letter seen by The Independent reveals.
Ursula von der Leyen, who was tapped by member states for the top job in Brussels, said she would “support a further extension if good reasons are provided” beyond the current deadline.
But the German politician was emphatic that she would not change the deal struck by Theresa May, adding: “The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the United Kingdom is the best and only possible deal for an orderly withdrawal.”
The letter was sent by Ms von der Leyen to the leaders of the socialist and liberal groups in the European Parliament, whose support she needs to be confirmed as president. They had written to her to ask her to spell out her programme to win their votes.
“I want to explain my thinking on Brexit,” Ms von der Leyen concludes the letter obtained by The Independent.
“This was an issue that was raised by several members from your group. I very much regret that the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union. But I fully respect this decision. Brexit creates uncertainty for citizens’ rights, for economic and territorial actors, and for the stability and peace on the Island of Ireland.
“The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the United Kingdom is the best and only possible deal for an orderly withdrawal.
“If elected I am ready to pave the way to the ambitious and strategic partnership we want to build with the United Kingdom. Should more time be required, and should there be good reasons provided, I will support a further extension if good reasons are provided.”
The suggestion that talks under Article 50 could be extended will give heart to remain campaigners, who believe more time would be needed to organise a second referendum.
But some EU national leaders think the bloc should cut Britain adrift and not grant an extension, to end the disruptive affair. The period has already been extended twice and was supposed to expire on 29 March 2019.
Leo Varadkar said last month that EU leaders had run out of patience with Britain and would only support an extension for a general election or second referendum.
The confirmation from the the nominee that she would not re-open the withdrawal agreement – a longstanding EU position – clashes with the views of many Tories in Westminster who think the EU can be forced to renegotiation. The Sun newspaper reported on Monday that Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told Michel Barnier five times in a recent meeting that the deal is “dead”. It has been rejected by MPs three times.
Boris Johnson has said he would take the UK out of the EU on 31 October “do or die” but leaks from the civil service suggest that it has warned that the UK is not prepared for a no-deal exit on that date. The frontrunner for next prime minister has said he would withhold payment of the Brexit financial settlement to try and force the EU back to the table.
Ms Von der Leyen spends the rest of the letter explaining her programme for Commission president. Highlights include more ambitious climate targets, “a more growth friendly fiscal stance” in the euro area, beefed-up provisions for the rule of law, and reforms to the EU processes to make them more democratic.
She faces a vote in the European Parliament on Tuesday, which she needs to pass to confirm her position as European Commission president.