LONDON, April 1 — British lawmakers will try once again today to agree a new approach to Brexit after rejecting Prime Minister Theresa May’s divorce deal for a third time, but the EU warned its patience was wearing thin.
Brussels has set an April 12 deadline to agree the divorce terms May has struck with the bloc, find an alternative or crash out of the European Union.
The House of Commons held a first round of votes last week on various Brexit options but failed to agree, and is now hoping to produce a clearer result today.
The main opposition Labour Party is backing two proposals which would keep Britain close to the EU after Brexit, but both would face strong resistance from May and most of her Brexit-backing ministers.
As a result, she might still try one last time to get her own deal through this week — but time is running out.
The EU has called an emergency summit for April 10 and warned that without a plan, Britain risks abruptly ending ties with its largest trading partner two days later, causing huge economic disruption.
“With our British friends we have had a lot of patience, but even patience is running out,” European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker told Italian public TV channel Rai 1.
Britain voted by 52 per cent to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, but the process has been mired in divisions over the terms of the divorce and what kind of future ties to seek.
The political chaos forced May to postpone Britain’s exit from the original date of March 29, but she said it would be “unacceptable” for a further delay beyond European Parliament elections on May 23-26.
Frustrated with her approach, MPs in the House of Commons last week gave themselves powers to find an alternative strategy, by holding so-called “indicative votes” on a range of different Brexit options.
No proposal won a majority in the first round last week and MPs will vote again at 8pm (1900 GMT) today, while another day of debate is scheduled for Wednesday.
The two most popular options were a new EU-UK customs union or a public vote on any agreed deal, both backed by Labour.
But while some pro-European ministers might support a customs union, it risks mass rebellion among others in the Conservative government who believe it would curtail Britain’s freedom after Brexit.
Labour is also backing a third plan today, dubbed “common market 2.0”, which would accept May’s divorce terms but require her to negotiate a new EU customs arrangement and membership of the EU single market.
This risks angering some Labour MPs by thwarting hopes of ending free EU migration into Britain, but a party spokesman said its move was seeking to “build consensus”.
In rare public remarks, May’s chief whip Julian Smith — who enforces discipline among Conservative MPs — expressed frustration at the political deadlock.
In a BBC interview broadcast today, he said ministerial splits were “the worst example of ill-discipline in cabinet in British political history”.
German junior foreign minister Michael Roth had harsher words when he addressed a meeting of his Social Democratic Party in Berlin this weekend.
“Brexit is a shitshow, I’ll say it quite undiplomatically,” he said.
He blamed people who “went to private schools and elite universities”, saying: “They screwed it up and others have to take responsibility for it.”
May struck a divorce deal with the EU last November, but it was rejected by MPs in January, on March 12 and again last Friday.
The numbers of Conservative MPs against the plan fell after May pledged to resign if it passed, but her Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), were still opposed.
Guy Verhofstadt, the leader of the European Parliament’s Brexit committee, urged lawmakers today to “find a compromise and stop this chaos”.
“This evening, for once voting ‘Yes’, instead of every time voting ‘No’,” he tweeted.
Cabinet ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss the outcome of the ballots, and could still decide to hold a fourth vote on May’s deal on Wednesday or Thursday.
The votes by MPs are not legally binding but politically hard to ignore — prompting speculation that if May cannot accept them, the only way out is an election. — AFP