LONDON – The UK House of Commons voted 321-278 on Wednesday for a non-binding motion against exiting the European Union without an agreement under any circumstance, prompting Prime Minister Theresa May to propose that London ask Brussels for a three-month extension.
The vote came a day after the House rejected – for a second time – the Withdrawal Agreement May negotiated with the EU.
On Thursday, the House will consider whether to request EU approval to delay the implementation of Article 50, mandating Britain’s exit, beyond the deadline of March 29.
“If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short limited technical extension to Article 50, to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the EU,” said May.
An extension would require the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining EU member-states.
May warned after Wednesday’s vote that abandoning the EU without an agreement on March 29 continues to be the “default” legal option, if some other arrangement is not agreed to before that date.
“The options before us are the same as they always have been,” the Conservative prime minister said in a statement following the vote.
She said that if the chamber by March 20 were to approve the Withdrawal Agreement that lawmakers have already voted down twice a “short limited technical extension” of three months could be requested that would provide time for the UK to approve the necessary Brexit legislation.
“Such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place,” she emphasized.
If, on the other hand, Parliament continues to reject the withdrawal pact that London and Brussels finalized in November, a “much longer” extension would become necessary.
“The House (of Commons) has to understand and accept that if it is not willing to accept a deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to accept leaving without a deal on the 29th of March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension to Article 50,” May said.
That delay, the prime minister added, would require the UK to participate in the May 23-26 European Parliamentary elections.
“The legal default in EU and UK law is that the UK will leave without a deal unless something else is agreed. The onus is now on every one of us in this House to find out what that is,” May said.
Failing to implement the 2016 referendum, in which Britons voted to break with the EU, would damage the already fragile confidence of British citizens in their lawmakers, May said.
May said that the UK could try to negotiate a different agreement with the EU, but she noted that the bloc has already been clear in saying that the pact that is on the table is the only one possible.
The main sticking point for many opponents of the Withdrawal Agreement is concern that the provision to prevent the return of a hard border between EU member Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland would trap Britain in a permanent customs union with the bloc.
May traveled to Strasbourg, France, late Monday in pursuit of some movement from the EU on what is known as the Irish backstop.
At a midnight press conference, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced what the Conservative prime minister’s government called a “legally binding instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol on Northern Ireland.”
Yet the UK attorney general said that the last-minute “clarifications” reduced – but did not eliminate – the risk that the country could be indefinitely bound to the Irish backstop.
Geoffrey Cox, whose job it is to present the House of Commons with independent legal advice, told lawmakers ahead of Tuesday’s vote that he still had concerns about the backstop.
Even with the latest assurances from the EU, the UK would be without any “internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement,” he said.
The Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing outfit from Northern Ireland that props up the Conservative minority government, dismissed the latest EU text as insufficient.
And hard-line Brexiteers inside the Conservative Party, led by the European Research Group, were likewise unpersuaded by the changes presented in Strasbourg.
EU leaders have been adamant on the need to avoid a hard border in Ireland, something that many people fear would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Juncker was emphatic on Monday that the EU was done talking.
“There will be no third chance. There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the re-assurances if the meaningful vote tomorrow fails,” he said.
The EU’s chief negotiator with the UK on Brexit, Michel Barnier, reinforced that point after Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons.
“The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the #UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before,” the French politician wrote on Twitter.