Boris Johnson has sent a letter to European council president Donald Tusk requesting a further Brexit delay beyond 31 October.
Despite the prime minister’s insistence that he would not “negotiate” a further extension of the UK’s membership of the EU, he confirmed on Saturday evening that he had sought such a prolongation.
Shortly after 10pm London time Tusk tweeted: “The extension request has just arrived. I will now start consulting EU leaders on how to react.”
Johnson sent three letters: an unsigned photocopy of the request he was obliged to send under the Benn act, an explanatory letter from the UK’s ambassador to the EU and a letter explaining why Downing Street did not want an extension.
An EU source said that in the call between Tusk and Johnson at 8.15pm Brussels time on Saturday the UK prime minister had confirmed that the request would be sent within hours.
Tusk will now speak to the EU27 heads of state. “This may take a few days,” the source said.
Officials in Brussels said there was little doubt that an extension request would be granted, despite the prime minister’s attempts to throw doubt on such a decision. A decision on the terms could be taken later in October to allow for events to unfold in London. A summit could be held as late as 29 October
A spokeswoman said: “The European commission takes note of the vote in the House of Commons today on the so-called Letwin amendment, meaning that the withdrawal agreement itself was not put to [the] vote today.
“It will be for the UK government to inform us about the next steps as soon as possible.”
It will be up to the heads of state and government to approve any request, a process that will be organised by Tusk.
A spokesman for Tusk declined to comment further. Ambassadors for the EU27 will meet on Sunday morning to discuss the latest developments.
Speaking in the Commons, Johnson told MPs he did not believe the EU would be minded to offer a further extension and that he would not negotiate one.
But senior EU officials said it was clear during the discussions among the leaders at a summit on Thursday that “they would grant an extension”. “Even [the French president Emmanuel] Macron in the room didn’t suggest otherwise,” the source said.
The chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen, who is a senior member of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, said he had “no doubt” an extension would be granted.
A consequence of the delay to the Brexit deal being approved in parliament is that the European parliament’s plans to ratify the withdrawal agreement next week have also been left in doubt.
The European parliament will only ratify the deal after the Commons has approved it. MEPs next sit on 14 November, making 30 November a potential new Brexit day if the Commons approves the deal by then.
Guy Verhofstadt, the coordinator of the European parliament’s Brexit steering group, said his committee would “consider the outcome of today’s vote for the Letwin amendment on Monday”.
He added: “Whatever happens next, the marches outside the parliament show just how important a close EU-UK future relationship is.”
The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, tweeted: “The EU & UK agreed a withdrawal agreement on Thursday that defends Ireland’s interests. The Commons voted today to defer a decision on whether or not to ratify that agreement.
“To date, no request for an extension has been made by the UK government. Should that happen, president Tusk will consult all 27 heads of state & govt on whether or not we will grant one. Extension can only be granted by unanimity.”
Jean-Claude Piris, a former head of the EU council legal service, told the Guardian that Brussels would not “wait and see” but that “if asked” the leaders would “say yes”.
The Commons voted on Saturday that it would not approve the Brexit deal until all related legislation was passed. MPs were concerned that the legislation would not be passed by 31 October, leaving open the possibility of the UK accidentally crashing out.
That decision triggered the Benn act which placed the prime minister under a legal obligation to request an extension unless a deal had been approved by 11pm UK time on Saturday.
The prime minister said he would not negotiate a further delay, and hinted that a request could be rejected in Brussels.
On Friday, Macron had tried to help Johnson cajole MPs into backing his deal by suggesting that he was opposed to a delay. “I am not trying to read into the future but I do not think we shall grant any further delay,” he had said.
A spokesman for the Élysée Palace said that any further delay “was not in anyone’s interest”.
But EU sources said the private comments of Merkel better represented the leaders’ position.
She had told EU leaders that a Brexit extension would be unavoidable if British MPs vote down the new deal. Merkel said leaders had a responsibility not to push the UK out without a deal.