European Council president Donald Tusk has suggested EU leaders grant the UK a longer extension to Brexit than Theresa May has requested.
The Prime Minister, who spent the day holding talks with French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris and German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, has been making the case for a delay until June 30.
But Mr Tusk, in a letter to the heads of the 27 remaining member states ahead of a crunch summit on Wednesday, said there was “little reason to believe” that the ratification of Mrs May’s beleaguered Brexit deal could be completed by the end of June.
He called for the European Council to discuss an alternative, longer extension, such as a “flexible extension” lasting “as long as necessary and no longer than one year”.
Mr Tusk wrote: “The flexibility would allow to terminate the extension automatically, as soon as both sides have ratified the Withdrawal Agreement.
“The UK would be free to leave whenever it is ready. And the EU27 would avoid repeated Brexit summits.
“Importantly, a long extension would provide more certainty and predictability by removing the threat of constantly shifting cliff-edge dates.
“Furthermore, in the event of a continued stalemate, such a longer extension would allow the UK to rethink its Brexit strategy.”
He suggested that the EU would grant an extension rather than allowing Britain to leave without a deal on Friday, saying that, given the “risks posed” for those on both sides of the English Channel, “I trust that we will continue to do our utmost to avoid this scenario”.
Mr Tusk’s letter came after the PM arrived in Paris for talks with Mr Macron, who in recent days has warned that an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process is not guaranteed.
Earlier over a “working lunch”, Mrs May and Ms Merkel had agreed on the importance of an “orderly withdrawal” from the EU, Downing Street said.
The unanimous agreement of all 27 remaining EU states is needed to avoid a no-deal Brexit on the scheduled date of April 12.
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds branded the talks “humiliating and embarrassing” for the UK, and claimed Britain was “effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders”.
“The talks between the Prime Minister and the leaders of France and Germany is humiliating and embarrassing for the United Kingdom,” he said.
“The problems the Prime Minister is attempting to solve were not created by the decision to leave the European Union, rather the ineffective negotiations by the Prime Minister to implement that decision.
“A solution was put forward by the House of Commons on 29th January through the Brady amendment which could have charted a course by which Parliament could have supported a deal.
“Instead of treating this proposal seriously, the Prime Minister has effectively accepted the backstop and opted not to stand up to Brussels.
“Nearly three years after the referendum the UK is today effectively holding out a begging bowl to European leaders.”
The PM’s visits came as the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Brussels could amend the Political Declaration on future relations with the UK “within a few hours or days” to incorporate the customs union arrangement being discussed in cross-party talks between the Government and Labour.
But there were signs of resistance in Mrs May’s Cabinet to compromise with Labour, with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox warning that a customs union would leave the UK “stuck in the worst of both worlds”.
Mrs May has asked for the date of Brexit to be delayed until June 30 at Wednesday’s summit, with the possibility of an earlier departure if the UK’s withdrawal deal is ratified.
MPs backed her call in a Commons vote on Tuesday afternoon as they approved a Government motion for Mrs May to seek an extension to June 30 by 420 votes to 110, majority 310.
However 97 Conservatives rebelled by opposing the plan - including former Brexit secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab.
Meanwhile, the cross-party talks seeking to break the Brexit impasse will resume on Thursday, with Labour saying the Government had not yet made a “clear shift” in its position.
A party spokeswoman said: “We had further detailed and wide-ranging talks with Cabinet ministers and officials today.
“We have yet to see the clear shift in the Government’s position that is needed to secure a compromise agreement.
“We have agreed to hold further talks on Thursday in an effort to break the Brexit deadlock, and find a compromise that can win support in Parliament and bring the country together.”
A Downing Street spokesman said the talks were “productive” and “wide-ranging”, adding: “We remain completely committed to delivering on Brexit, with both sides working hard to agreeing a way forward, appreciating the urgency in order to avoid European elections.”