United Kingdom

UK’s Theresa May Says Next Vote Is on Brexit Delay

Both Britain and the EU have ramped up planning for a no-deal Brexit, which would rip up decades of rules for travel and trade between Britain and the bloc

British Prime Minister Theresa May says Parliament will vote Thursday on whether to seek a delay to Britain's March 29 departure from the European Union. 

May said lawmakers are at the point where they must approve a withdrawal agreement in coming days and request a short postponement to Brexit day or request a "much longer" extension from the EU to negotiate a new arrangement. 

The prime minister warned that a long extension would mean Britain would have to take part in European Parliament elections in late May. 

She says this is not her preferred outcome and urged Parliament to "face up" to the consequences of the decisions it has made.

Britain's political crisis sparked anxiety across the European Union on Wednesday as fears rose that Britain would crash out of the bloc on March 29 without a withdrawal agreement to smooth the way.

Residents, businesses and politicians across Britain and the bloc were bracing for a chaotic Brexit after British lawmakers rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit agreement for a second time by a decisive 391-242 vote on Tuesday.

Parliament was due to vote later Wednesday on whether to rule out leaving the EU on March 29 without a deal — though that won't eliminate the risk it could happen anyway.

As Britain teeters ever closer to the edge of the Brexit cliff, lawmakers are trying to seize control from the divided and squabbling government, although it's far from clear if they can agree on a way forward. There are competing factions that support May's deal, a "softer" deal that would keep close ties with the EU, a no-deal Brexit, or even a new referendum on Britain's EU membership.

A weakened May, her authority shredded by successive Brexit defeats in Parliament, said her Conservative lawmakers could vote Wednesday night according to their conscience, rather than having to follow a party line.

Even her voice was almost gone. Environment Secretary Michael Gove opened the House of Commons debate as a stand-in for the prime minister, who was hoarse as she answered questions earlier in the day.

Opposition Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said "a no-deal Brexit could be terminal for Britain's manufacturing."

He said May's "mantra of 'my deal or no deal' needs to be dead and buried tonight."

Across the Channel, top EU officials warned that the prospect of no deal could not be eliminated unless the U.K. Parliament approved some type of exit deal. By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay from the EU.

"The risk of a no-deal has never been higher," chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said.

"I urge you please not to underestimate the risk or its consequences," he told European lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.

Both Britain and the EU have ramped up planning for a no-deal Brexit, which would rip up decades of rules for travel and trade between Britain and the bloc. Economists say it could cause huge upheaval, with customs checks causing gridlock at U.K. ports, new tariffs triggering sudden price increases and red tape for everyone from truckers to tourists.

The U.K. government announced its plans for the Irish border in the event of a no-deal Brexit, saying it wouldn't impose new checks, duties or controls on goods coming from EU member Ireland into Northern Ireland. It also said it wouldn't slap tariffs on 87 percent of goods coming into Britain from the EU — though there would be new levies on imports of some items including meat and cars.

The tariffs, intended to be temporary, wouldn't apply to goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland, raising fears the plan would spark a rise in smuggling.

In Irish border communities and U.K. ports, no-deal anxiety was mounting.

"Potentially it is going to be a nightmare," said Michael Eddy, a district councilor who lives in the aptly named town of Deal, a few miles from the major Channel port of Dover on England's south coast.

He says local authorities have modeled potential disruptions and believe that even "a two-minute delay for every truck going through the port of Dover" would lead to a 50-mile (80-kilometer) traffic jam.

"What then happens with local people wanting to go about their business, wanting to get to hospitals, wanting to get their kids to school, all of that kind of stuff?" he said.

U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC the government was prepared but acknowledged "no-deal is going to be very disruptive for the economy."

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the no-deal arrangements would be "a sledgehammer for our economy."

If a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, Parliament will vote Thursday on whether to ask the EU to delay Britain's departure. The EU — openly exasperated by Britain's continuing Brexit crisis — warned that the U.K. would need to present a strong reason for any extension.

"I am against every extension — whether an extension of one day, one week, even 24 hours — if it's not based on a clear opinion of the House of Commons for something," said the European Parliament's chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt. "Please make up your minds in London, because this uncertainty cannot continue."

The European Parliament, meanwhile, approved measures to ameliorate the immediate hardships of a no-deal Brexit. It backed emergency plans to provide continuity for everything from air, port and road traffic to foreign students to the fishing industry.

The U.K. Parliament has twice rejected the withdrawal agreement that May spent two years negotiating with the EU, and the bloc insists there will be no more talks.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a warning to British lawmakers.

"Whoever rejects the (Brexit) agreement plays with the welfare of their citizens and the economy in a reckless way," he said.

Yet May has not given up on a third attempt to get her deal through Parliament again.

"I am confident that we will do a deal," said U.K. Treasury chief Philip Hammond.

Many Britons wish they could share his optimism.

"I think that a bit of unity would be helpful now," said Katharine Beaugie, an artist in Dover. "It would be much better if we could have found some sort of decision."

Renee Graham, Danica Kirka, Frank Jordans and Angela Charlton contributed.

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