Brussels - EU member states paved the way on Sunday for the European Parliament to ratify a Brexit divorce deal struck last week with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but took no decision on a request by London to delay Brexit beyond October 31.
''Very unclear'' situation
In a brief meeting with the bloc's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, EU ambassadors formally initiated the ratification process, diplomatic sources said on condition of anonymity.
They "took note" of the extension request submitted late Saturday, one diplomat said. Over the coming days, European Council President Donald Tusk will consult with EU leaders on the request, taking into account "further developments on the British side," he added.
The situation in Britain is "very unclear," another EU source said, noting that the bloc did not want to decide to delay Brexit, only to find that the British parliament had indeed ratified the deal.
He said it was "not excluded" that both sides complete ratification by October 31, while noting that there could nonetheless be a "technical" extension to conclude the process.
Both the British and European Parliaments need to ratify the Brexit deal - replacing a previously negotiated accord that was rejected by British lawmakers - before October 31 to secure a smooth, regulated British departure from the European Union.
That timetable was put into question on Saturday when lawmakers in London postponed an initial vote on the agreement. The move forced Johnson to request a three-month extension - a move he personally opposes.
Another chance for the Brexit deal
"Regrettably, parliament missed the opportunity to inject momentum into the ratification process for the new withdrawal agreement," Johnson wrote to Tusk late Saturday.
"I remain confident that we will complete that process by 31 October," he added, noting that many of those who had backed the delay in parliament have indicated their support for the new deal.
The move by parliament was aimed at forcing Johnson to request an extension in order to prevent Britain from leaving the EU on October 31 without a transitional deal in place.
Lawmakers effectively delayed parliament's approval of the deal until after necessary Brexit-related legislation has been passed. There are concerns in parliament that there is not enough time to pass the legislation before the October 31 exit date.
If it is necessary to convene a further EU summit, Johnson said he would be "happy to attend" in order to answer questions on the state of play in London.
On Saturday, Tusk received three letters from London.
These were are an unsigned copy of a legally prescribed text demanding that the British government request an extension; a note from British EU ambassador Tim Barrow; and Johnson's signed letter to Tusk.
All options are still open
Under the withdrawal agreement, EU laws will continue to apply to Britain for a transitional period. Without it, Brexit could lead to short-term chaos and unpredictability for citizens and businesses on both sides.
The Brexit withdrawal deal is due to come before the London parliament again on Monday, with Johnson still hoping to have legislation passed by the October 31 deadline.
The opposition Labour party's Brexit secretary Keir Starmer indicated on Sunday that Labour could vote for Johnson's deal if a second referendum is attached to it, Britain's Press Association (PA) reported.
The referendum would give the British public the chance to support Johnson's deal or vote to end the Brexit process and stay in the EU.
Johnson has strongly opposed a second Brexit referendum.
A senior figure in Johnson's government stressed again on Sunday that the Brexit deadline was firm.
"We know that the EU want us to leave, we know that we have a deal that allows us to leave ... We are going to leave by October 31," Michael Gove told Sky News' Sophy Ridge On Sunday, as reported by PA.
The EU with and without Britain