LONDON: British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to seek a delay in Britain’s exit from the European Union, setting the stage for Prime Minister Theresa May to renew efforts to get her divorce deal approved by parliament next week.
Lawmakers approved by 412 votes to 202 a motion setting out the option to ask the EU for a short delay if parliament can agree on a Brexit deal by March 20 — or a longer delay if no deal can be agreed in time.
The vote makes it likely that the March 29 departure date set down in law, which May has repeatedly emphasised, is likely to be missed, although it is unclear by how long.
The short delay envisaged in the motion could last until June 30, but the longer extension is not currently time-limited. Either would require unanimous approval from the other 27 EU members, whose leaders meet in a summit next Thursday.
May hopes the threat of a long delay will push Brexit supporters in her Conservative Party and members of the Democratic Unionists, the small Northern Irish party that props up her minority government in parliament, to back her deal at the third attempt.
A new vote on May’s deal is likely next week, when those lawmakers must decide whether to back a deal they feel does not offer a clean break from the EU, or reject it and accept that Brexit could be watered down or even thwarted by a long delay.
Earlier on Thursday, lawmakers voted by 334 to 85 against a second referendum on EU membership. Few opposition lawmakers backed the measure and even campaigners for a “people’s vote” said the time was not yet right.
The government narrowly averted an attempt by lawmakers to seize the agenda on March 20 with the aim of forcing a discussion of alternative Brexit options - possibly limiting May’s options when she takes her case for delay to the EU.
Thursday’s vote does not mean a delay is guaranteed; EU consent is needed, and the default date for Britain to leave if there is no agreement is still March 29. May’s spokesman said the government was still making preparations for a no-deal exit.
Her authority hit an all-time low this week after a series of parliamentary defeats and rebellions.
Published in Dawn, March 15th, 2019