Brussels could handle a British request to delay its departure from the European Union right up to the final hour before Brexit day, an official said Monday.
EU leaders hope Prime Minister Theresa May will come to their summit on Thursday with a plan to ratify Britain's withdrawal deal before March 29.
But if she decides that Britain needs more time to settle on an exit plan, she could ask for a delay up to an hour before the divorce becomes final.
"I would say one hour before midnight Brussels time," a senior EU official told reporters at a briefing ahead of this week's European Council summit meeting.
That is the moment -- 11.00 pm in London on March 29 -- when, according to current British and EU law the UK's four-decade old membership comes to an end.
"I think everybody prefers to do it the formal way," the official said, stressing that any delay would have to be unanimously approved by EU members.
"But from a legal point of view I would say, not one minute to midnight, but a little bit before," she said. "I think everybody would prefer to have clarity."
May and her 27 EU colleagues approved a withdrawal deal, which foresees a two year transition period for Britain's departure, at a previous summit in November.
But the British premier has twice failed to convince Westminster lawmakers to ratify the accord, and plans to try again with less than two weeks until Brexit.
It appears more and more likely she will ask for the date to be postponed, but she has yet to submit a formal request and the other EU leaders need to agree.
If there is no agreement at this week's summit, another emergency meeting could yet be called next week.
But the official said this would be a matter for member state leaders and added: "It's not necessary for them to meet, we also have written procedures."
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