U.K. lawmakers gear up for vote on Brexit delay request
LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers faced another tumultuous day Thursday, as Parliament prepared to vote on whether to request a delay to the country’s scheduled departure from the European Union and Prime Minister Theresa May struggled to shore up her shattered authority.
A new round of Brexit tussles came a day after chaotic scenes in the House of Commons, when lawmakers voted to rule out leaving the EU without an agreement on divorce terms. A dozen government ministers abstained rather than support May’s bid to preserve the no-deal option, while another voted against, and resigned.
Lawmakers were deciding Thursday whether to seek a delay to Brexit, currently due to take place on March 29. May grudgingly granted the vote after Parliament twice rejected her EU divorce deal. Despite the rebuffs, May has signaled she will try a third time to get backing for the agreement next week.
May’s opponents are simultaneously trying to grab the Brexit controls from her hands, although it’s far from clear if Britain’s divided Parliament can agree on a way forward.
Britain is currently scheduled to leave the EU in 15 days, when a two-year countdown to departure runs out. Exiting the EU without a deal could mean major disruptions for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining countries.
Some lawmakers have been pressing for a series of votes in Parliament on different Brexit options — including a closer relationship with the bloc than the government wants — to see if any can command a majority.
Bowing to pressure, deputy prime minister David Lidington said that if May’s deal is not approved by next week, the government will “facilitate” votes in late March or early April “to seek a majority on the way forward.”
Parliament is also scheduled to vote Thursday on several other options, including a call to use a Brexit delay to organize a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership. Another will try to prevent May bringing her EU twice-rejected divorce deal back for a third vote.
May is proposing Brexit be delayed until June 30 — but only if she can get Parliament to back her Brexit deal by Wednesday.
May has refused to abandon her plan, and is seeking to win over opponents in her own party and its Northern Irish political ally, the Democratic Unionist Party.
May has warned Brexit supporters who oppose her deal that if no withdrawal agreement is passed in the coming days, the only option will be to seek a long extension that could mean Brexit never happens.
Any delay in the Brexit process would require the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining EU member states, which in effects gives the bloc the power to dictate the terms of an extension.
EU officials have indicated they would approve an extension if there were a specific reason for one, but that they don’t want to provide more time for political bickering in Britain.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said in Brussels said he wasn’t sure more time was the answer. The EU, he added, needs “more decisions” from London.
“We have to know, what is the intention of the British parliament? What are the choices of the British authorities?” he said in Brussels.
The EU is also reluctant to postpone Brexit beyond the late May elections for the European Parliament, because that would mean Britain taking part even as it prepares to leave.
The bloc is more open to a long delay to allow Britain to radically change course — an idea favored by pro-EU British lawmakers who want to maintain close ties with the EU.
“I think we should suggest to the Europeans a good, long delay,” said Conservative lawmaker Ken Clarke. “Go back to square one and work out … over a proper time, the final relationship.”
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted Thursday he will appeal to the leaders of the other 27 EU nations “to be open to a long extension if the U.K. finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus about it.”
The EU has also warned that Parliament voting against no-deal Brexit isn’t enough to stop it. By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.
Conservative lawmaker George Freeman suggested that May should promise to quit to get her deal through.
“This chaos can’t continue,” Freeman said in a tweet. “Something has to give.”