Saturday

23rd Mar 2019

March 29 Brexit unlikely after UK rejects EU deal

  • British MPs likely to vote for a delay on Wednesday and Thursday, but how will EU respond? (Photo: Leo Hidalgo)

The likelihood the UK will leave the EU on 29 March has faded after Tuesday's (12 March) failed vote, but no one can say how much longer and on what terms it will stay in.

The likely lapse comes after a modified EU withdrawal accord was defeated by 391 votes to 242 in what left British prime minister Theresa May sounding exasperated as she "profoundly regretted" her defeat in Westminster.

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The No vote came amid concerns that EU promises the UK would not be stuck in a customs union in order to avoid a hard border in Ireland were not legally enforceable.

The options now left on the table were to crash out with no deal, causing economic bedlam, to "leave with a deal but not this deal", to cancel or delay Brexit, or to hold a new referendum, May said.

"These are unenviable choices, but thanks to the decision the house has made this evening they must now be faced," she said.

She urged MPs to rule out the first option, adding: "By far the best outcome is the UK leaves the European Union in an orderly fashion with a deal".

She also appeared to rule out the second one, given that, with just 16 days left to go until 29 March "the deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed only deal available."

And with the idea of a new referendum still far from being credible, she threw her weight behind the delay.

"I am conscious also of my duties as prime minister ... and of the potential damage to the union that leaving without a deal could do," she added.

British MPs will now vote on Wednesday on a motion which says: "This house declines to approve leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement and a framework on the future relationship on 29 March".

Both the UK and the EU have stepped up preparations for the worst-case scenario.

But the motion is expected to sail through, with few MPs, save for a minority of hardline Brexiteers, such as former foreign secretary Boris Johnson or anti-EU backbencher Jacob Rees-Mogg, willing to jump off the cliff.

MPs will then vote again on Thursday on whether to extend Article 50 - the EU treaty clause that governs the process - beyond March in a motion that is also expected to pass as the logical follow-up to the no-deal rule-out.

What next?

But the expectations end there, as the other 27 EU leaders will also have to agree to an extension at a summit later this month.

"Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU-27 will consider it and decide by unanimity," a spokesman for EU Council president Donald Tusk said.

But "the EU-27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured," he added.

Mark Rutte, the Dutch PM, also said he would need a "creditable and reasoned" justification for extending Article 50.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said earlier on Tuesday that "we will now wait for these votes and then we will decide" on whether to extend the deadline.

But a senior German MEP from her party, Elmar Brok, said the EU would not accept a long delay because London "doesn't have a clue" how to proceed.

Nigel Farage, a British eurosceptic MEP said the delay would probably be at least one year.

"Let's be realistic. We've got a new European Parliament [EP] coming in ... I don't see the next phase of [Brexit] negotiations even starting until November. So I would say that the extension, realistically, has to be a year," he told the Associated Press news agency, referring to the EP elections in May.

That would mean that British MPs would run in the EU parliament election even though they were, ultimately, on the way out, Farage added.

"If we've got to fight more European elections, I will fight them," he said.

May herself suggested she wanted a three-month delay.

But she also said that that might solve nothing unless MPs were prepared to do a U-turn on Tuesday's rejection.

"Voting against leaving without a deal and asking for an extension does not solve the problems we face. The European Union will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension, and this house will have to answer that question," she said.

For his part, Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the government should call a snap election in order to plot a new course.

"The prime minister has run down the clock and the clock has been run out on her ... It's time that we have a general election and the people can choose who their government should be," he said.

But May's spokesman said there was no chance of that, amid fears that her Conservative party would be crucified by voters due to the turmoil it had caused.

"We are not preparing for, we do not want a general election: our position is unchanged," the spokesman said.

'Out of control'

Some EU leaders tried to sound a positive note. "Common sense will prevail and we will find a way out of this rather difficult situation," Latvia's Edgars Rinkevics said.

But other politicians on both sides of the channel were less optimistic.

The situation had "spiralled out of control", Guy Verhofstadt, a Belgian MEP who is the EP's Brexit spokesman, said.

"We now have a government that has effectively ceased to function and a country that remains poised on a cliff-edge," Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister, said.

British business chiefs also voiced dismay.

"Despite two and a half years passing since the referendum, there is no clear plan to support communities at the sharp end of such an abrupt change," Adam Marshall, the head of the British Chambers of Commerce, said.

"Enough is enough ... it's time to stop this circus," Carolyn Fairbairn, the head of the Confederation of British Industry, added.

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