British MPs set to vote on delaying Brexit

(AFP) – British MPs will vote Thursday on whether to ask the European Union for an extension to the March 29 Brexit deadline, with the whole process mired in chaos.

It comes after MPs on Wednesday voted to reject a no-deal Brexit, in an intense week of parliamentary ballots.

The government will ask British lawmakers to endorse its plan to hold another vote on the divorce deal in the coming days and to request a delay whatever the outcome.

The delay would be until June 30 if the Brexit deal is finally approved. But it has already been overwhelmingly rejected twice by – in Jan and earlier this week.

If MPs vote against the deal once again, the government said the Brexit delay could be much longer and may force Britain to take part in European Parliament elections in May.

Brexit has become deadlocked in the British parliament, reflecting the deep divisions that remain in Britain almost three years after the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union.

Any request for a delay would still have to go before EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on March 21-22.

They have already stated that they will only agree to push back the Brexit date if Britain makes concrete proposals to break the crisis.

Unless British MPs agree to the deal or EU leaders unanimously approve a delay, Britain would still have to crash out of the EU with no deal in place on March 29.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament’s Brexit committee, tweeted that he is “against any extension of Article 50 (the Brexit process), even for just 24 hours, if it is not based on a clear majority from the House of Commons in favour of something.”

Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May will also have to convince “each and every” EU country to grant any delay, Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok stressed on Wednesday.

‘Negotiation finished’ 

The series of votes has further entrenched the divide between the rival British camps, both in the chamber and in the country at large as protesters of both factions once again gathered outside Westminster.

“Unfortunately our deceitful prime minister and many in her cabinet have tried to derail the Brexit process by never standing strong to the EU and saying if we don’t get a proper deal we’re just walking away,” said Brexit supporter Suzanne Hall, 56.

“I think there needs to be a second referendum,” countered Christine Bobin, 64. “I don’t think people voted knowing what was going to happen.”

This week’s machinations in parliament come two years after Britain set the clock ticking on its departure from the EU following the 2016 referendum.

May had hoped that last-minute assurances from EU chiefs on key sticking points in her deal, chiefly the backstop proposal to keep the Irish border open, would get it through parliament.

However, she was torpedoed by legal advice from her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who said the changes would not allow Britain to leave the backstop of its own accord, raising fears that the country would be stuck in an indefinite customs union with the EU.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Wednesday said Brussels will not rework the painstakingly-negotiated withdrawal agreement.

“Why would we prolong the negotiation? To do what? Because the… negotiation is finished, we have a treaty, it’s there,” he said, holding up the 585-page document.

No-deal risk

Barnier warned that “the risk of no-deal has never been higher”.

The British government on Tuesday said that in such an eventuality it would scrap tariffs on 87% of imports and would not apply customs checks on the border with Ireland.

Anti-Brexit supporters are also buoyed, believing that the failure of May’s deal and MP’s rejection of a no-deal exit brings the country a step closer to a second referendum or to stopping Brexit entirely.

May gave them a boost on Wednesday, telling parliament: “We could leave with the deal which this government has negotiated, but subject to a second referendum, but that would risk no Brexit at all.”

MPs first rejected the Brexit deal in January by a historic margin of 230 votes. Though some eurosceptics changed their minds, Tuesday’s defeat was still by a hefty 149 votes.