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LONDON – Britain’s Parliament voted to avoid an economically disastrous no-deal split from the European Union, opening the door to delaying Brexit and radically re-writing the terms of the divorce.
The House of Commons voted 321 to 278 to reject leaving the EU with no deal and is now expected to seek to delay Brexit in the hope of securing a better deal, which markets would welcome.
Britain on Wednesday unveiled a contingency trade policy that favors global giants such as China over EU countries in case of a messy divorce from the bloc. London is bracing for the worst as it races toward the March 29 Brexit deadline without a plan for unwinding its 46-year involvement in the European project. A sudden “no-deal” split would see an end to the current free trade arrangements between Britain and its EU partners overnight.
Speaking in the Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May said Parliament must now face up to the consequences of its decisions. She announced that if a deal can be agreed to in the coming days, she would ask the EU for a short “technical” extension to the March 29 exit day deadline. If there’s no deal, the delay will be much longer, she said.
It is almost three years since Britain voted to cancel its 40-year membership of the EU and with just 16 days to go until exit day, Theresa May’s government has failed to get an agreement that can win the support of Parliament.
The prime minister’s preferred deal, which took two years to negotiate, was resoundingly rejected by the Commons for the second time in a vote on Tuesday night. Now, MPs have decided to avoid leaving the bloc without a deal.
The question is, what kind of deal will Parliament vote for, and how much longer do Britain’s politicians need to make up their minds?
On Wednesday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned that postponing Brexit won’t be straightforward.
“It could be a tactical, a political prolongation,” Barnier told Euronews TV. “In that case, I know the answers and the reaction of the EU side, the EU leaders, the EU Parliament: ‘What for? Why do you need a prolongation? Is it for organizing a new referendum, new elections or not?”‘
MPs are set to stave off the threat of a no-deal exit from the European Union on March 29 but the second defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce treaty has left the country heading into the Brexit unknown.
“We continue to see a 55 per cent chance that a close variant of the prime minister’s Brexit deal is eventually ratified, after a three-month extension of Article 50,” Goldman said. Its best guess was that a reversal of Brexit had a 35 per cent probability and a no-deal Brexit a 10 per cent probability.
Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said no-deal remained preferable to staying in the EU.
“If you pushed me to the end point where it’s a choice between no deal and no Brexit … I think no deal is going to be very disruptive for the economy and I think no deal also has serious questions for the union,” he told BBC radio.
“But I think no Brexit is catastrophic for our democracy. Between those very unpleasant choices, I think no Brexit is the bigger risk.”
The EU said there could be no more negotiations with London on the divorce terms.
Britons voted by 52-48 percent in 2016 to leave the bloc, a decision that has split the main political parties and exposed deep rifts in British society.
Many fear Brexit will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China, leaving Britain economically weaker and with its security capabilities depleted.
Supporters say it allows Britain to control immigration and take advantage of global trade opportunities, while keeping close links to the EU.
Britain’s Parliament delivered a crushing defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May’s European Union divorce deal Tuesday, plunging the Brexit process into chaos just 17 days before the UK is due to leave the bloc.
Lawmakers rejected the deal 391-242, ignoring May’s entreaties to back the agreement and end the political chaos and economic uncertainty that Brexit has unleashed.
It was a narrower outcome than the 230-vote margin of defeat for the agreement in January, before May secured changes from the bloc — but not by much.
With EU leaders warning there would be no more changes or negotiations, and with less than three weeks to go until the UK is due to leave, British lawmakers now face a stark choice between leaving the EU without an agreement to smooth the way, or delaying the country’s withdrawal past the scheduled March 29 departure date.
May — her voice ragged after days of frantic shuttle diplomacy to secure last-minute changes to the deal — had earlier told the House of Commons, “this is the moment and this is the time — time for us to come together, back this motion and get the deal done.”
“If this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” May said.
But prominent Brexit supporters whose support May needs were unconvinced. Hard-core Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative Party and the prime minister’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party both said they could not support the deal, which Parliament rejected by an overwhelming margin in January.
The DUP, which props up May’s minority government, said “sufficient progress has not been achieved” on the key issue of the Irish border.
The European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives, which has dozens of lawmakers as members, said the amendments “do not deliver ‘legally binding changes'” to the withdrawal agreement, as the government promised.
“In light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today,” group member Bill Cash said.
At a late-night news conference Monday in Strasbourg, France, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced changes designed to overcome lawmakers’ concerns about provisions designed to ensure the border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland remains open after Brexit.
The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.
May said documents to be added to the deal provided “legally binding” assurances that the backstop would be temporary and that Britain would have a way to get out of it if the EU failed to negotiate in good faith. However, the text of the 585-page withdrawal agreement remained unchanged.
May hoped the changes would be enough to overturn the 230-vote margin of defeat for the deal in January.
But her hopes were dashed when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the changes “reduce the risk” Britain could be trapped inside EU regulations — but do not eliminate it. The two-page opinion said the UK could still not extract itself from the terms of the divorce deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.
In a written legal opinion , Cox said that if UK-EU negotiations became stalled through “intractable differences,” Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
John Whittingdale, a Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker, said the attorney general’s advice was “pretty terminal” for May’s plan.
The main opposition Labour Party also said it would reject the deal.
“In terms of the substance, literally nothing has changed,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
The pound, which had risen on hopes the deal would be passed, slumped by more than 1 percent against the dollar after Cox’s assessment, to trade at $1.3108.
Other EU nations had urged British politicians to seize the chance to back the deal and ensure an orderly departure.
German EU affairs minister Michael Roth, called it “a far-reaching compromise.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted that he was “pleased with the agreement,” adding: “An orderly #Brexit is crucial for both the EU and the UK. There is no alternative.”
The EU warned British politicians that negotiations will not be reopened if Parliament rejects the deal again.
“In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance,” Juncker said.
Britain’s political impasse over Brexit has raised fears of a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in the UK and the 27 remaining EU countries, with tariffs and border checks imposed on trade between the two.
Lawmakers are now due to vote in the next two days on whether to leave the EU without an agreement — an idea likely to be rejected — or to ask the EU to delay Brexit.
Delaying Brexit would need the approval from all 27 remaining EU countries. They are likely to agree, as long as Britain leaves before elections to the European parliament in late May.
Some British lawmakers had warned their Brexit-backing colleagues that rejecting the deal could lead to Britain’s departure being postponed indefinitely, because a delay would give momentum to opponents of Brexit.
“Today is our Hotel California moment. If we don’t check out tonight, we may never leave,” tweeted Conservative legislator Bob Seely.
More than two and a half years after the country voted to leave the EU — and with no certainty about when or how it will — many Britons are simply fed up.
In the staunchly pro-Brexit port of Dover in southern England, retiree Mary Simpson said she felt that her voice as a “leave” voter had not been heard.
“I am actually considering never voting again, quite honestly, because I am beginning to feel that there is no point in it,” she said.
“This is the original version of the backstop that the EU offered, so it should be clear they are willing to still offer this,” says Prof Whelan.
That would leave Great Britain free to strike trade deals but Northern Ireland would not be part of them.
That would be anathema to the DUP and other MPs.
The second part of Prof Whelan’s plan is to use the Brexit political declaration to promise the citizens of Northern Ireland a referendum on the backstop, should it ever come into effect.
He suggests that five years after the beginning of the operation of a Northern Ireland-only backstop there would be a vote on whether to remain within the EU’s customs union and single market.
He says: “A promise to hold a referendum five years after the end of the transition period would provide a clear concession to those who believe the backstop arrangements would be harmful to Northern Ireland by offering them a chance to convince their fellow citizens to end the arrangements after a period.”
It proposes a new European customs association – a permanent customs union between the UK and the EU.
It would be superior to the customs deal Turkey has with the EU giving the UK “full and active participation”, instead of merely being a rule-taker.
However, it acknowledges even that would not be enough to keep the Irish border frictionless and the UK would have to effectively remain in the single market for goods and perhaps services.
In return for such an enormous u-turn by the UK, the institute says that the EU should also make a radical change on free movement.
The EU’s position is that the UK cannot enjoy full participation in the single market unless it accepts the four freedoms – one of which is the free movement of people.
The institute says the EU could “abandon its indivisibility dogma by which the four freedoms are inseparable, offering the UK to participate in product market integration but allowing it to make its own choices in other areas”.
It adds: “Most importantly, this concerns the mobility of people.”
Beef up the political declaration
The political declaration was published alongside the withdrawal deal and sets out the broad shape of the future relationship between the UK and EU.
EU leaders have said they are open to redrafting the declaration if the UK presents new ideas.