Ursula von der Leyen was heckled by Brexit Party MEPs as she said she was ‘ready’ to further delay the UK’s departure from the EU as she tried to persuade the European Parliament to make her the bloc’s next boss.
Mrs von der Leyen faces a crunch vote this afternoon when she will need to win the support of a majority of MEPs in order to be installed as Jean-Claude Juncker’s replacement.
But the difficulty of the task facing the outgoing German defence minister was highlighted by the moment when she said she would be open to pushing back Brexit beyond the current October 31 deadline.
Mrs von der Leyen had prompted applause from Nigel Farage and his grouping of 29 MEPs as she said the UK had voted to leave the EU in 2016.
But they then switched to jeering and howls of derision as she confirmed her willingness to postpone Brexit past Halloween.
She said of the 2016 referendum result: ‘This is a serious decision. We regret it but we respect it. Since then together with the current government of the UK the EU has worked hard to organise the orderly departure of the UK.
‘The Withdrawal Agreement concluded with the government of the UK provides certainty where Brexit created uncertainty
‘In preserving the rights of citizens and in preserving peace and stability on the island of Ireland, these two priorities are mine too.
‘However, I stand ready for further extension of the withdrawal date should more time be required for a good reason.’
Brexit Party MEPs could then be heard shouting ‘No!’ as Mrs von der Leyen’s comments prompted a smattering of applause from other parts of the European Parliament building in Strasbourg.
She added: ‘In any case the United Kingdom will remain our ally, our partner and our friend.’
Ursula von der Leyen, pictured addressing the European Parliament in Strasbourg today, prompted howls of derision from Brexit Party MEPs this morning as she said she was open to a further Brexit delay
Brexit Party MEPs could be heard shouting ‘No!’ as Mrs von der Leyen floated the idea of delaying the UK’s departure past the current October 31 deadline
Her comments will be seen as a major boost for Remain campaigners because they suggest a No Deal divorce is not necessarily inevitable.
Both Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have kept No Deal as an option as they battle to succeed Theresa May in Number 10.
But while Mr Hunt has said he is open to a small further delay if more time is needed to strike a deal, Mr Johnson has promised to deliver Brexit ‘do or die’ and with or without a deal on October 31.
Both men have made renegotiating Mrs May’s existing Brexit deal their ‘Plan A’ but Brussels has been ice cold on the prospect of making changes to the terms of the UK’s divorce.
Mrs von der Leyen will need to win at least 374 out of 747 votes at a secret ballot this afternoon if she is to be Mr Juncker’s replacement.
But she is far from a lock for the top job with widespread discontent among MEPs over the way in which she was put forward.
The Christian Democrat of the European People’s Party has promised parliamentarians she will put climate and social issues at the heart of her programme over her five year term.
However, senior figures in the EU fear Mrs von der Leyen may struggle to secure the majority of support she needs.
Many in Brussels believe she will limp over the line but if she is rejected it would represent a major headache for EU leaders.
She was chosen as the last-minute candidate by the leaders of the EU’s 28 member states after a grueling three day summit during which other better known names were rejected because of internal squabbling.
The way in which she was chosen angered many MEPs and if they reject her then the EU28 will likely be forced to go back to the drawing board.
Her speech to MEPs this morning as she sought to win over her doubters, came after she had written to socialist and liberal representatives yesterday to make the case for why they should support her.
In her letter she said that she would support a further Brexit extension beyond the current October 31 deadline.
But she also insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Theresa May was still the ‘best and only possible deal for an orderly withdrawal’.
Her comments on the finality of the current deal highlight the strength of opposition likely to face Mr Johnson and his plan to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s divorce from the bloc if he becomes PM next week.
Brexit has already been delayed twice since the original March 29 deadline.
Mrs von der Leyen faces a secret ballot of MEPs this afternoon on whether she will replace Jean-Claude Juncker
Mrs von der Leyen will become the first female president of the European Commission if she secures the support of a majority of MEPs
But senior figures in Brussels are concerned that Mrs von der Leyen may barely get the numbers she needs. If she is rejected then the leaders of the EU28 member states will likely have to go back to the drawing board to select a new candidate
She concluded her letter with a lengthy passage on her Brexit vision as she said: ‘If elected, I am ready to pave the way to the ambitious and strategic partnership we want to build with the United Kingdom.
‘Should more time be required and should there be good reasons provided, I will support a further extension if good reasons are provided.’
Ms von der Leyen expressed her ‘regret’ that the UK had voted to leave the EU in June 2016 but added: ‘I fully respect this decision.’
‘The Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the United Kingdom is the best and only deal possible for an orderly withdrawal,’ she said, according to a copy of the letter published by The Independent.
Her use of the phrase ‘good reasons’ in the letter and in today’s speech has been interpreted as meaning either a second referendum or general election being held to break the Brexit deadlock.
However, while her remarks give a good indication of the future direction of the EU, it will ultimately be up to Mr Juncker and the leaders of the EU member states to decide whether there should be a further Brexit delay.
Mrs von der Leyen is due to take over from Mr Juncker on November 1, the day after the current Brexit deadline.