Britain’s Parliament has dealt a major blow to Prime Minister Theresa May, resoundingly rejecting her Brexit deal just 17 days before the U.K. is due to leave the bloc. (March 12)
LONDON – British lawmakers voted Wednesday to rule out leaving the European Union without a formal exit deal when Britain leaves the bloc in less than three weeks.
Yet while the vote passed 312-308, it is non-binding. The outcome nevertheless sets up a vote Thursday, when lawmakers could choose to delay Brexit.
Britain’s Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU for the second time in as many months late Tuesday in a move that increased political and business uncertainty over what happens next.
A “no deal” Brexit, according to analysts and political scientists, could lead to chaos at ports, grounded flights, traffic jams and food shortages. Buckingham Palace repurposed a Cold War-era emergency escape plan for Queen Elizabeth II in the event this default EU-divorce position causes social unrest or other disturbances.
“I may not have my own voice, but I understand the voice of the country,” May said in Parliament on Wednesday as she battled a sore throat. She insisted that Britain can leave the EU with a “good deal” but warned lawmakers they face “hard choices.”
If Britain decides it wants to delay Brexit it would still need to seek approval from an EU that has grown increasingly frustrated with Britain’s inability to speak with a unified voice over the terms of its exit from the bloc. The EU has demanded “credible justification” before it would grant any request to delay Brexit.
“I don’t see reason to give any extension if first of all we don’t know what the majority position is of the House of Commons,” Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, said Wednesday. “We are waiting now for a proposal from London. It is now in London that they have to find a way out of this and break the deadlock.”
Still, even if Brexit is delayed, Britain will still depart the EU without a deal if one is not agreed during the period of delay because that is the default legal position.
The British government sought to reassure industry leaders Wednesday by publishing details of its contingency plans under a “no deal” scenario. These include cutting tariffs on a range of agricultural imports from outside the EU and measures to avoid a “hard border” between Britain’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
Investors have been closely watching Brexit, which has caused volatility for the value of the British pound, although they appeared to shrug off the latest developments.
Britain’s benchmark FTSE 100 index traded flat on Wednesday.
Dominic Grieve, Britain’s former attorney general and a supporter of staying in the EU from May’s ruling Conservative Party, told BBC radio that crashing out of the bloc without a deal would be an “absolute catastrophe.” Grieve, who has advocated for a second public vote on whether Britain should leave the EU, has previously warned that a “no deal” Brexit could force the nation to declare a “state of emergency.”
“Politicians have spectacularly failed,” said Nigel Green, the chief executive of deVere GroupGroup, a London-based financial consultancy. “Allowing the public to vote and giving them a final say is quite simply the only credible solution now available.”
Michael Gove, Britain’s environment secretary, told Parliament that tens of thousands of businesses were not prepared for a “no-deal exit.” He was standing in for May after she lost her voice in earlier debates because of her sore throat.
Parliament has now twice rejected May’s withdrawal agreement. She spent the best part of two years negotiating it the EU, and the bloc insists there will be no more talks.
For many British lawmakers one of the chief stumbling blocks of May’s EU deal relates to the status of Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland.
EU-facilitated friction-less trade and travel across this border is viewed as a key cog in ensuring peace between Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic community and its British Protestant one. It underpins the Good Friday Agreement, the 1998 peace deal between the British and Irish governments and political parties in Northern Ireland.
May has negotiated with the EU a mechanism, known as the “backstop,” to safeguard this open border. But supporters of Brexit fear it could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely, thus significantly watering down its exit from the bloc.
“The risk of a ‘no-deal’ has never been higher,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday. “I urge you please not to underestimate the risk or its consequences,” he told European lawmakers.
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