Britain to seek divorce delay

The EU will consider pressing the UK for a longer option

British lawmakers expectedly voted overwhelmingly last Thursday evening to seek a delay in Britain’s exit from the EU, news wires reported. By 412 votes to 202 they approved a motion allowing PM Theresa May to ask the EU for a short delay if parliament can agree on a Brexit deal by 20 March, or a longer delay if no deal can be agreed in time.

The vote means that the March 29 departure deadline is most likely to be missed, but it is still unclear by how long. The parliament motion envisaged a short delay of up to three months, while a highly possible longer extension is currently not limited in time. Furthermore, any such option would require unanimous approval from the other 27 EU members, whose leaders meet in a summit on Thursday.

May has long insisted that the UK will leave the EU on 29 March with or without a withdrawal deal. But she was forced to offer MPs a vote on delaying Brexit after they rejected her withdrawal agreement by a large margin, for a second time, and then voted to reject a no-deal Brexit. She has warned that extending the departure date beyond three months could harm trust in democracy.

May will now try to make her departure deal approved by parliament in a third attempt early next week hoping that the threat of a long delay will push Brexit supporters in her Conservative Party and members of the Democratic Unionists, that props up her minority government in parliament, to back her. Lawmakers must once again decide whether to back a deal they feel does not offer a clean break from the EU, or reject it and accept that Brexit could be watered down or even thwarted by a long delay.

Earlier last Thursday, MPs voted by 334 to 85 against a second referendum on EU membership. The government narrowly averted an attempt by lawmakers to seize the agenda on 20 March with the aim of forcing a discussion of alternative Brexit options, possibly limiting May’s options when she takes her case for delay to the EU.

But the vote in British parliament does not mean a delay is guaranteed as EU consent is still needed, while the default date for Britain to leave if there is no agreement is still 29 March. May’s spokesman said the government was still making preparations for a no-deal exit. May is planning to hold another "meaningful vote" on her withdrawal deal by Wednesday, and then to go to an EU summit on Thursday, where to ask for a one-off extension to get the necessary legislation through Parliament.

But EU leaders has already hinted that at their summit they will consider pressing Britain to delay Brexit by at least a year. “I will appeal to the EU27 (remaining members) to be open to a long extension if the UK finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it,” Council President Donald Tusk said. France said that a short Brexit delay merely to discuss May’s existing deal was “out of the question”.

A senior EU official said Tusk believed Britain would, if May fails to avoid a third parliamentary defeat next week for the Brexit deal she negotiated with Brussels, need at least a year and possibly much longer to find a national consensus on how - and indeed whether - it wants to quit the bloc.

Such an extension, which would depend on May lodging such a request, would require Britain to elect members of the European Parliament when all states hold votes on May 23-26, the senior official said. It would require unanimous support among the 27 other Member States, whose positions are so far unclear.

In the run-up to the summit, Tusk will travel to meet leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Tuesday. On Friday, he will meet Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a prominent voice on the Council. A number of leading EU figures have been calling for the bloc to refuse any extension beyond the May elections, or at the latest beyond July 2 when the new EU legislature convenes.

Tusk, while hoping May can win lawmakers’ support for her Brexit deal before the summit, believes a short extension would achieve little. He wants leaders to consider a longer delay that could give Britain time to find a broader consensus, perhaps through a general election or a new referendum on EU membership.

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