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24th Feb 2024

May calls for third vote on EU exit deal

  • Britain's unilateral rule-out of a no-deal Brexit was like 'the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way', Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said (Photo: EUobserver)

British prime minister Theresa May has urged MPs to back her EU exit deal in a third vote or face a Brexit delay of up to two years.

But EU leaders might not agree to a delay, with EU institutions pushing them to take a hard line, and with a no-deal Brexit on 29 March still the default legal option for now.

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"If the house finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short limited technical extension to [Brexit] ... to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement," May told parliament on Wednesday (13 March).

"If it is not willing to support a deal in the coming days ... then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension," she said.

The third vote on the EU exit accord would take place on 20 March, she added.

MPs already rejected it twice due to fears it could leave the UK stuck in the EU customs union indefinitely because of arrangements concerning the Irish border.

But the majority against the accord shrunk from 230 in the first vote to 149 in the second one, prompting Goldman Sachs, a leading bank, for one, to estimate that there was a 55 percent chance that a third attempt might succeed.

May spoke after MPs earlier on Wednesday voted to rule out a no-deal EU departure under any circumstances due to the legal and economic disarray that that would cause.

They will vote again on Thursday on whether to back May's motion on the short delay.

But whatever kind of delay they ask for, the UK will remain on course to leave the EU on 29 March unless the 27 other EU leaders also agree, by consensus, to grant their wishes at a summit in Brussels on 21 March.

France, Germany, and Ireland have indicated that they would be open to a short extension. "We still hope that we can avoid an unregulated Brexit," German foreign minister Heiko Maas said on Wednesday.

But other countries, including the Netherlands, have taken a harder line.

The British MPs' vote to unilaterally rule out a no-deal Brexit on 29 March was like "the Titanic voting for the iceberg to get out of the way", Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte said on Wednesday.

Hardball

The European Commission and the European Parliament also urged the EU-27 to play hardball.

EU leaders should not agree to an extension in order to let the UK renegotiate the exit deal, Michel Barnier, the commission's Brexit negotiator, told MEPs in Strasbourg on Wednesday.

"Why would we extend these discussions? The discussion ... is done and dusted. We have the withdrawal agreement. It is there," he said.

EU leaders should also reject May's idea of a "short technical extension" and should agree on a long extension only if the UK was to hold snap elections or a second referendum, Barnier's deputy, Sabine Weyand, added.

The British MPs' unilateral rule-out of a no-deal exit was "divorced from reality", she said, echoing Rutte.

"They [the UK] decided to leave - it's their problem, not ours," Antonio Tajani, the European Parliament president, also told German media, in a sign of sour grapes in Brussels.

"It's a matter now of avoiding the biggest mistake of all - a chaotic Brexit without contractual arrangements in place," he added.

Big mistake

With 15 days to go before that happens, MEPs approved temporary emergency measures on Wednesday to let airlines keep flying between the UK and Europe, on the rights of UK residents, and on fishing access, among other items.

The UK also published a memo saying it would not impose tariffs on 87 percent of EU goods imported into the country or impose new border checks as of 30 March.

With May now holding backroom talks with hardline Brexiteers and Northern Irish MPs who rejected her deal the first two times around, British finance minister, Philip Hammond, whose job was to protect British businesses from harm, urged them to get behind her on the third time around.

"Tomorrow [Thursday], we will have the opportunity to start to map out a way forward towards building a consensus ... to exit the EU in an orderly way, to a future relationship [with Europe] that will allow Britain to flourish, protecting jobs and businesses," he said in parliament on Wednesday.

A no-deal exit would harm not just Great Britain's economy, but also its "standing and reputation in the world", he said.

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