BRUSSELS: European leaders were expected to postpone Brexit once again on Wednesday, when Prime Minister Theresa May attends another last-ditch summit still without a ratified divorce deal.
May wants to push back Brexit from April 12 to June 30 to arrange Britain's orderly departure but Brussels fears that will not be long enough, and EU leaders are expected to offer a delay of up to a year.
"There are times when you need to give time time," EU Council president Donald Tusk tweeted, as he issued invitations to the latest emergency European summit in Brussels.
Summit host Tusk said the evidence of recent months gives EU leaders "little reason to believe" that British lawmakers will ratify the Brexit withdrawal treaty before May's preferred June 30 departure.
"In reality, granting such an extension would increase the risk of a rolling series of short extensions and emergency summits, creating new cliff-edge dates," he said, reflecting concern in EU capitals.
"One possibility would be a flexible extension, which would last only as long as necessary and no longer than one year," he said.
Merkel to host May for Brexit talks Tuesday: Berlin
Tusk's suggestion does not bind the other EU leaders when they meet on Wednesday, but his ideas chimed with what diplomats were suggesting as May toured key EU capitals on Tuesday.
A draft summit conclusion, seen by AFP, was being circulated among EU diplomats, but the proposed new Brexit date was still blank as talks continued on the eve of the summit.
Some members, led by France, are sceptical of allowing too long a delay and a potentially disruptive one.
Brexit must not be frustrated, UK PM Theresa May says
But others -- notably Germany and Britain's close neighbour Ireland -- worry that if May runs out of time then a dramatic "no deal" Brexit would do more harm in the long run.
On Tuesday, May flew to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel, then on to Paris, where an aide to President Emmanuel Macron said France was open to solutions.
"We've never been closed to the idea of finding an alternative solution to 'no deal' within certain limits and not at any price," the aide said on condition of anonymity.
Discussions in Brussels are to focus on the length of the delay -- the French source said a 12-month extension "seems too long" -- and arrangements to limit Britain's influence within the EU.
"There would be a transition period for the United Kingdom as an intermediary member, which is present and applying the rules, but not taking part in decision-making," the aide said.
EU members want to ensure that a semi-detached Britain does not seek leverage in Brexit talks by intervening in choosing the next head of the European Commission or the next multi-year EU budget.
Briefing conservative German lawmakers after she hosted May, Merkel said the option of a Brexit deadline in early 2020 would be discussed at the EU summit, according to a source.
May is hoping the extra time, if granted, will enable her to finally get a divorce deal through parliament.
British MPs have rejected a deal May negotiated with the EU three times, but the PM is now in talks with the opposition Labour party to try break the deadlock.
These discussions are moving slowly, and EU negotiator Michel Barnier said May must explain what postponement would achieve.
"The length of the extension must be linked to the purpose -- what it's for -- and that depends on what Mrs May will say to European leaders tomorrow," he said, after meeting EU ministers in Luxembourg.
A "no deal" -- in which Britain crashes out of the EU -- is still a possibility.
The International Monetary Fund said Tuesday that Britain risks a serious shock if it leaves the EU without an agreement.
And on Tuesday, US Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin warned American lawmakers: "I think at this point we need to be prepared for a hard Brexit as a very realistic outcome."
May had requested only a short delay to avoid having to take part in European Parliament elections, which begin on May 23, but a long postponement would entail Britain's participation in the polls.
May's chances of ratifying the withdrawal agreement she signed in Brussels in November last year rely on either rebel MPs in her Conservative party and her Northern Irish allies backing her deal at the fourth time of asking -- or a compromise with the opposition.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Monday he was still waiting for signs of compromise from May and talks have been suspended until the summit in Brussels.
His top team met Tuesday with some of May's senior ministers, including leading Brexit supporter Michael Gove and her more pro-European finance minister Philip Hammond.