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Parliament rejects no-deal Brexit, now will vote on delaying

British lawmakers to vote on delaying Brexit

Britain's Parliament voted Wednesday against a no-deal Brexit, which would have allowed the nation to leave the European Union without an agreement on how to handle it on the current deadline of March 29. Prime Minister Theresa May said Parliament will vote Thursday on whether to delay Brexit past March 29.

May said there was a "clear majority" against a no-deal Brexit but the "legal default" was that Britain would leave without a deal on March 29 if no deal is reached, BBC News reports. Leaving the EU without a deal would likely be chaotic and cause major disruptions not just in the U.K. but across the remaining 27 EU member countries. 

On Thursday, Parliament will be asked if they want to delay Brexit until June 30. But that is only if MPs back May's deal by March 20. 

The lawmakers' 321-278 vote Wednesday has political but not legal force, and does not entirely rule out a chaotic no-deal departure for Britain. But it might ease jitters spreading across the EU after lawmakers resoundingly rejected May's divorce deal on Tuesday. 

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament following the vote on Brexit in London
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks in Parliament following the vote on Brexit in London, March 13, 2019.  Mark Duffy via REUTERS

Speaking with a raspy voice after weeks of relentless pressure, May hinted that she plans to make a third attempt to get lawmakers to support her Brexit deal, which they have already rejected twice. 

She said Parliament faced a "fundamental choice" — a "short, technical extension" if lawmakers approve a divorce deal with the EU in the next week, or a much longer delay to Brexit if they don't.

The EU warned that voting against no-deal Brexit wasn't enough to stop it. By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.

"There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal," a European Commission official said. "The EU is prepared for both. To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal — you have to agree to a deal."

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the unresolved situation.

Earlier, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that "the risk of a no-deal has never been higher."

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.

Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the House of Commons, speaks in Parliament, following the vote on Brexit in London
Ian Blackford, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) in the House of Commons, speaks in Parliament, following the vote on Brexit in London, March 13, 2019. Jessica Taylor via REUTERS

Parliament likely will agree to delay Brexit, but it would need EU approval. The bloc - 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 bloc is also reluctant to consider a delay that goes beyond elections to the European Parliament in late May, because it would mean Britain would have to participate in the polls even as it prepares to leave.

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.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said under the proposals, "Northern Ireland will become a backdoor to the European single market and I think that in a matter of months that will lead to the need for checks at Northern Ireland's ports."

"I don't think the U.K.'s proposals will be workable for very long," he said during a visit to Washington.

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.

The European Parliament approved measures Wednesday 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 warned British lawmakers that "whoever rejects the (Brexit) agreement plays with the welfare of their citizens and the economy in a reckless way."

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

U.K. Treasury chief Philip Hammond said he was "confident that we will do a deal" in the next few weeks.

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."