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UK asks for another short Brexit delay — while the EU proposes something much longer

Key Points
  • European Council President Donald Tusk has proposed to allow the U.K. the flexibility to leave the EU whenever British lawmakers approve and ratify a deal within the 12-month period.
  • U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May has officially asked the EU another short extension.
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Tusk to offer UK 12-month Brexit extension

A flurry of Brexit activity early Friday morning saw both the EU and the U.K. move to lengthen the current timetable for negotiations, reducing the prospect of Britain exiting the bloc without a deal.

First, European Council President Donald Tusk proposed allowing the U.K. a 12-month "flexible" extension to leave the European Union, an EU source told CNBC. Tusk's proposal, first reported by the BBC, would allow the U.K. the flexibility to leave the EU whenever British lawmakers approve and ratify a deal within the 12-month period.

However, leaders of the political and economic bloc would need to agree to Tusk's plan at a summit next week.

Later on Friday morning, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May officially asked the EU another short extension. A letter from May to Tusk proposes an extension to June 30, which could be terminated early if a deal is agreed. The letter also mentioned preparations for the U.K. to hold EU elections in late May.

At the moment, the U.K. is scheduled to leave the EU on April 12 and will be the first country to leave the bloc. The process to take the U.K. officially out of the EU began two years ago, but has yet to be finalized. U.K. parliamentarians have so far rejected the deal that Prime Minister Theresa May negotiated with the EU three times.

When asked about a possible extension, German Finance Minister and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz said: "Hopefully, in the end we will have an agreement, because this is the best outcome for all the things that are going to happen."

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Bruno Le Maire, the French finance minister, said the U.K. needs to have a very good reason to ask for another extension.

"If we are not able to understand the reason of why the U.K. is asking for an extension, we can't give a positive answer," he told CNBC's Silvia Amaro in Bucharest Friday, before May's letter was officially sent to Tusk.

Softening in May's stance

Experts now believe that the EU will probably accept the U.K.'s request for a further extension, in order to avoid a no-deal scenario which could cause widespread uncertainty for business.

Kallum Pickering, a senior economist at Berenberg, says there's been a significant softening in May's stance in recent days, especially by accepting that the U.K. may need to hold European elections.

Watch: Niall Ferguson: Brexit has turned into a student asking for a paper extension

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Niall Ferguson: Brexit has turned into a student asking for a paper extension

"Mrs May has opened the door to a possibly lengthy delay than can give the U.K. the time it needs to sort out its affairs and avoid a cliff-edge hard Brexit on 12 April 2019," he said in a research note.

"Her letter also puts additional pressure on parliament to get its act together unless it wants the U.K. to take part in the EU elections and see Brexit delayed even further."

Meanwhile, May has been speaking this week with the rival Labour party to try to push some sort of deal over the line. She is expected to write to opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn to lay out her administration's offer on Brexit, the Guardian reported on Thursday. The letter would include a proposal to offer lawmakers the option to hold a referendum on any Brexit deal, the report said.

— CNBC's Silvia Amaro and Stevie Young contributed to this report.