A pro EU protestor shouts through a megaphone at the Houses of Parliament in London, Wednesday, March 27, 2019. (Photo: AP)
British lawmakers on Wednesday debated multiple options for leaving the European Union as they sought to bring some clarity to the tortured Brexit process and stop the country tumbling out of the bloc within weeks with no exit plan in place.
In the wake of two overwhelming defeats for Prime Minister Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, the House of Commons seized control of the parliamentary timetable for debate and votes on a range of Brexit alternatives.
House of Commons Speaker John Bercow selected eight widely differing options for votes from a list of 16 submitted by lawmakers. They include calls to leave the EU without a deal, to stay in the EU’s customs union and single market, to put any EU divorce deal to a public referendum, and to cancel Brexit if the prospect of a no-deal departure gets close.
Later in the day, lawmakers will vote on all of the options they could accept. The plan is for the most popular ideas to move to a second vote Monday to find one option that can command a majority. Parliament would then instruct the government to negotiate it with the EU.
May has said she will consider the outcome of the votes, though she has refused to be bound by the result.
The government condemned lawmakers’ move to seize control because it upends the usual practice in which the government sets the timetable for debate and votes in Parliament.
But Conservative lawmaker Oliver Letwin, one of those behind Wednesday’s votes, said “this is not an insurgency.”
“This process has come about as a result of the increasing concern that many of us have had across the House of Commons that we were heading not towards an approval of the prime minister’s deal, but alas towards a no-deal exit,” he said.
Almost three years after Britons voted to leave the EU, the date and terms of its departure are up in the air. Last week, the EU granted Britain a delay to the scheduled March 29 exit date, saying that if Parliament approves the proposed divorce deal this week, the UK will leave the EU on May 22. If not, the government has until April 12 to tell the 27 remaining EU countries what it plans to do — leave without a deal, cancel Brexit or propose a radically new path.
May, meanwhile, still hopes to bring the divorce deal that the government struck with the EU back for another vote in the House of Commons — if she can win over enough opponents to ensure passage. Lawmakers rejected the deal by 230 votes in January and by 149 votes earlier this month, primarily because of concerns about the Northern Ireland border
The prime minister is under mounting pressure from pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party to quit. Several have said they would support the Brexit deal if another leader was chosen to lead the next stage of negotiations, which will determine Britain’s future relations with the EU.
May, who is due to address Conservative lawmakers later Wednesday, did not reply directly when asked in the House of Commons whether she would be resigning in order to get her Brexit deal approved.
“It is my sense of responsibility and duty that has meant I have kept working to ensure Brexit is delivered,” she said.
House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom told the BBC there was a “real possibility” the unpopular agreement would be brought back for a vote on Thursday or Friday.
Tony Travers, a professor of government at the London School of Economics, said the parliamentary votes could boost support for May’s deal by convincing pro-Brexit lawmakers that Brexit might be delayed or abandoned.
Conservative lawmaker Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has sought a complete break from the European Union, said May’s deal is still a bad one, but “the risk is, if I don’t back it, we don’t leave the EU at all.”
“I think we have got to the point where legally leaving is better than not leaving at all,” he told the BBC. “Half a loaf is better than no bread.”
But Rees-Mogg said he would not back the deal unless Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party decided to vote for it. The DUP, which has 10 seats in the House of Commons, said Tuesday it still wasn’t prepared to support the “toxic” deal.
May also faces a hurdle imposed by Bercow, who ruled last week that the government can’t seek a new vote on the deal unless it is significantly changed. He restated that point Wednesday, saying, “I do expect the government to meet the test of change.”
Wednesday’s votes in Parliament could potentially produce conflicting and inconclusive results. But they could push Britain in the direction of a softer Brexit that keeps Britain closely tied economically to the EU.
That would probably require the UK to seek a longer delay, although that would mean that the country would have to take part in May 23-26 European Parliament elections.
Many EU officials are keen to avoid the messy participation of a departing member state.
But the chief of the European Council told European lawmakers that the EU should let Britain take part if the country indicated it planned to change course on Brexit.
Donald Tusk said the bloc could not “betray” the millions of Britons who want to stay in the EU.
“They may feel they are not sufficiently represented by the UK Parliament but they must feel that are represented by you in this chamber. Because they are Europeans,” Tusk said.