LONDON (AP) — Britain’s Parliament voted Thursday to seek a delay of the country’s departure from the European Union, a move that will likely avert a chaotic withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29.
With Brexit due in 15 days and no divorce deal yet approved, the House of Commons voted 412-202 to ask the bloc to postpone Britain’s exit until at least June 30.
Power to approve or reject the extension lies with the EU, whose officials have said they will only allow a delay if Britain either approves a divorce deal or makes a fundamental shift in its approach to Brexit. In a historic irony, almost three years after Britain voted to leave the EU, its future is now in the bloc’s hands.
By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.
While the Parliament vote gives Prime Minister Theresa May some breathing space, it was still humbling for a leader who has spent two years telling Britons they were leaving the bloc on that date.
Lawmakers have twice rejected her EU divorce deal — and also ruled out leaving the EU without an agreement. Withdrawing without a deal could mean major disruptions for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining countries.
But there was some good news for May, as lawmakers rejected an attempt to strip her of control over Brexit. They defeated by the narrowest of margins an opposition attempt let Parliament choose an alternative to May’s rejected divorce deal and force the government to negotiate it with the EU.
The House of Commons defeated the idea by just two votes, 314-312, leaving May least temporarily in charge of the Brexit agenda.
Lawmakers also voted to rule out the idea of holding a second Brexit referendum — at least for now.
By a decisive 334-85 vote, they defeated a motion that called for another vote by the public on whether to stay in the EU or leave. Campaigners for a new referendum are divided over whether the time is right to push for a second Brexit vote. The vote didn’t prevent lawmakers from trying again later to get Parliament’s support for another referendum.
Postponing Brexit gives May some respite, amid a crisis that has shredded her authority and obliterated her control of a fractious Conservative minority government. On Wednesday, a dozen government ministers abstained rather than support May’s bid to keep a no-deal Brexit as an option, while another voted against, and resigned.
Despite the rebuffs and the political chaos, May has signaled she will try a third time to get backing for her agreement next week. She is seeking to win over opponents in her own party and its Northern Irish political ally, the Democratic Unionist Party.
Alan Wager, a researcher at the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, said May faced a struggle to overturn a 149-vote margin of defeat in Parliament this week.
“It’s still really difficult to see how the numbers stack up for Theresa May, but she’s giving it one more go,” he said.
If the delay is approved next week, May hopes to use it to enact legislation needed for Britain’s departure. She has warned Brexit supporters who oppose her deal that if no withdrawal agreement is passed in the coming days, the only option will be to seek a long extension that could mean Brexit never happens.
Bowing to pressure, the government said Thursday that if May’s deal is not approved by next week, Parliament will get votes on other options — including a closer relationship with the bloc than the government wants — to see if any can command a majority.
Any delay in the Brexit process would require the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining EU member states.
Officials and national leaders in the bloc are exasperated at the events in London. They have said they will approve an extension if there is a specific reason, but don’t want to provide more time for political bickering in Britain.
“Under no circumstances an extension in the dark!” tweeted the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt. “Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation.”
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the EU needed “more decisions” from London.
In another sting for the beleaguered May, U.S. President Donald Trump said he was “surprised at how badly” the Brexit negotiations have been handled. Trump, who sees himself as a deal-maker, said he gave May advice but she didn’t listen to him.
Speaking alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House, Trump said Britain’s debate over leaving the EU was “tearing the country apart.”
The EU, meanwhile, is reluctant to postpone Brexit beyond the late May elections for the European Parliament, because that would mean Britain taking part even as it prepares to leave.
The bloc is more open to a long delay to allow Britain to radically change course — an idea favored by pro-EU British lawmakers who want to maintain close ties with the EU.
European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that he will appeal to EU leaders “to be open to a long extension if the U.K. finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus about it.”
Conservative lawmaker George Freeman suggested that May had been so damaged by Brexit that she should promise to quit to get her deal through.
“This chaos can’t continue,” Freeman said in a tweet. “Something has to give.”
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