UK lawmakers reject government's Brexit deal
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to lawmakers during the Brexit debate in the House of Commons, London, Friday March 29, 2019. (AP Photo)
U.K. lawmakers on Friday rejected the government's divorce agreement with the European Union for a third time, leaving Britain just two weeks to decide between a long delay to Brexit and an abrupt no-deal departure from the bloc.
The House of Commons voted 286-344 against the withdrawal agreement struck between Prime Minister Theresa May and the EU, rebuffing her plea to "put aside self and party" and "accept the responsibility given to us by the British people" to deliver Brexit.
Amid business warnings that a no-deal Brexit could mean crippling tariffs, border gridlock and shortages of goods, a visibly frustrated May said the vote had "grave" implications.
"The legal default now is that the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union on 12 April — in just 14 days' time," she said. "This is not enough time to agree, legislate for and ratify a deal, and yet the House has been clear it will not permit leaving without a deal. And so we will have to agree an alternative way forward."
Had the deal been passed, Britain would have left the EU on May 22.
The EU said the rejection of the divorce terms made a no-deal Brexit "a likely scenario" and called an emergency summit for April 10 to decide what to do next.
An EU Commission official said the 27 remaining EU nations were "fully prepared for a no-deal scenario at midnight 12th of April" — Britain's deadline to chart a new course.
Almost three years after Britain voted in June 2016 to leave the EU, and two years after it set its departure date for March 29, 2019, British politicians remain deadlocked over Brexit. Like the country as a whole, they are split between those who want a clean break, those who want to retain close ties with the bloc, and those who want to overturn the decision to leave.
Last week, to prevent Britain from crashing out, granted an extension to May 22 had the divorce deal been approved by Friday — or to April 12 if rejected.
The 58-vote margin of defeat for the deal Friday was narrower than in previous votes in January and March, but it still leaves the government's blueprint for exiting the bloc in tatters.
May's deal was voted down even after the prime minister sacrificed her job in exchange for Brexit, promising to quit if lawmakers approved the agreement and let Britain leave the EU on schedule. With the deal's rejection, she will face pressure to step aside and let a new Conservative leader take over negotiations with the EU.
The government had also warned pro-Brexit politicians that rejecting May's deal could see Brexit delayed indefinitely.
May's arguments moved some previously resistant Brexit-backers to support the deal. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson — a likely contender to replace May as Conservative Party leader — tweeted that rejecting it risked "being forced to accept an even worse version of Brexit or losing Brexit altogether."
But the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland, with 10 seats in the House of Commons, refused to back the agreement because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K.
Parliament voted on the legally binding, 585-page withdrawal agreement that May struck with the EU late last year, setting out the terms of Britain's departure — but not on a shorter declaration on future ties that was also part of the accord between the two sides.
Removing the political declaration from the Brexit vote altered the deal enough to overcome a parliamentary ban against asking lawmakers the same question over and over again.
May also hoped severing the link between the two parts of the deal would blunt opposition. That gamble failed to pay off, as opposition lawmakers said it amounted to voting for a "blind Brexit" with no idea what would happen next.
With May's deal as good as dead, lawmakers who favour a "soft Brexit" plan to hold votes Monday in an attempt to find a plan with majority support.
Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Parliament had a "responsibility to find a majority for a better deal for all the people of this country."
Business groups, who have been sounding the alarm for months about the damage a no-deal Brexit could do, urged lawmakers to avert disaster.
"All eyes are now on Monday to discover what Parliament is for," said Josh Hardie, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry. "The U.K.'s reputation, people's jobs and livelihoods are at stake. No deal is two weeks away."
If lawmakers back a new proposal, Britain would need to seek a new delay to Brexit from the bloc to implement it.
The EU has indicated it could grant Britain an extension of up to a year if it plans to change course and tack toward a softer departure. That would, however, require the U.K. to participate in elections for the European Parliament in late May — something both the bloc and the British government have sought to avoid.
The political morass has left Britons on both sides of the debate frustrated and angry. Some Brexit supporters, who had planned to be celebrating Friday, were protesting instead.
Thousands converged on Parliament Square as lawmakers voted inside, waving Union Jack flags and singing, "Bye-Bye EU."
Retired charity worker Mandy Childs, one of a band of hard-core Brexit supporters walking across England to London under the slogan "Leave Means Leave," said she felt "heartbroken."
"We were told over a 100 times by a British prime minister that we would be leaving on the 29th of March, 2019," she said.
"To do that, promise the British people that and then say 'Actually, no, we need to just put it back' — absolute betrayal. And how dare she?"