LONDON – The United Kingdom could delay its exit from the European Union if negotiations are reopened and a new deal is reached with Brussels by the end of March, a cabinet minister said Thursday.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made his comments during an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today show.
“I think it is true that if we ended up approving a deal in the days before the 29th of March then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation,” Hunt said. “But if we’re able to make progress sooner then that might not be necessary and we can’t know at this stage exactly which of those scenarios would happen,” added the minister.
On Tuesday, lawmakers in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, backed an amendment to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal to reopen with withdrawal agreement and find a replacement to the Irish backstop clause, which was designed to safeguard the open border on the island of Ireland.
The EU swiftly poured cold water on the plan as its leader sent a united message saying the pact would not be renegotiated.
The Commons also approved a non-binding amendment to a government motion to ensure the UK does not crash out of the EU without a deal.
May’s initial deal, which came about after two years of complex negotiations, was roundly rejected by MPs in a so-called “meaningful vote” on Jan. 15.
The backstop acts as a kind of insurance policy to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland, part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, should talks on the future UK-EU relationship collapse.
The backstop has proved unpopular with members of May’s Conservative Party as well as MPs in the minority government’s confidence and supply partners, the DUP, a like-minded Northern Irish group.
In his comments on the radio, Hunt said it was “difficult to know” if negotiations would be taking place right until the end of March, the month the UK is scheduled to leave the EU, adding he thought there had been a change in his country’s political climate in recent days.
“There are lots and lots of hurdles, no one’s saying this isn’t going to be very challenging, but we do now have a consensus in Parliament, we can use that consensus providing we can meet these concerns, very reasonable concerns, from our friends in Ireland about the not having a hard border, concerns in the EU about access to the single market,” said Hunt.
“Provided we can do that, which I think we can, then I think there is a way through.”
The prime minister acknowledged this week the “limited appetite” in Brussels to return to the negotiating table but expressed her confidence in being able to secure the necessary changes to pass a revised version of the deal.
On Wednesday, May met with the leader of the opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, to discuss the situation the country faced.
Brexit has opened divisions across the UK and seen protesters campaigning both in favor and against leaving the EU staging daily demonstrations outside Parliament.
The country is set to leave the EU on March 29 this year after May triggered Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon on the same date in 2017, notifying the bloc of her intention to pull the UK out of the bloc.
The government activated the mechanism after the UK electorate narrowly voted in favor of such a move in a referendum in June 2016.