EU leaders have offered the UK a plan which would delay Brexit from March 29 to May 22, on condition that MPs approve Theresa May’s withdrawal deal in a vote next week.
If the deal is rejected in its third “meaningful vote” in the Commons, the UK would be given until April 12 to come to the European Council with its proposals for the way forward.
The possibility would be open for a further extension of several months if the UK agreed to take part in European Parliament elections in May.
European Council president Donald Tusk said that the response to Britain’s request for an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process was agreed “unanimously” by leaders of the other 27 member-states.
The Prime Minister said: “What the decision today underlines is the importance of the House of Commons passing a Brexit deal next week so that we can bring an end to the uncertainty and leave in a smooth and orderly manner.
“Tomorrow morning I will be returning to the UK and working hard to build support for getting the deal through.”
Mr Tusk said that April 12 was a “key date” for the UK because if it decided not to participate in the European Parliament elections then a long extension would become impossible.
Mrs May said “it would be wrong to ask people in the UK to participate in these elections three years after voting to leave the EU”.
He said: “April 12 is a key date in terms of the UK wondering whether to hold European Parliament elections.
“If it is not decided do so by then the option of a long extension will immediately become impossible.”
Mr Tusk added: “In regards to the extension our decision envisaged two scenarios.
“In the first scenario, that is if the agreement is passed next week, the European Council agrees an extension to May 22.
“In the second scenario, if the agreement is not approved, the European Council agrees an extension until April 12 while expecting the UK to indicate a way forward.
“What this means in practice is that until that date all options remain open.”
Asked how long the “long extension” eventually on offer to the UK could be, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker replied: “Until the very end.”
Mr Juncker said: “Since the day of the referendum the position of the 27 members of the European Commission has been united and unequivocal.
“We have worked tirelessly to negotiate the Withdrawal Agreement.