British PM calls for another Brexit extension

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Theresa May to hold talks with Labour leader Corbyn after MPs fail to identify a route forward they could agree on

British Prime Minister Theresa May will ask the European Union for a further, short extension to Article 50 to avoid the U.K. crashing out of the EU on April 12, and has said she wants to “sit down” with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in an effort to thrash out a solution and break the log-jam.

This would potentially allow for a joint approach to the declaration on future relations — which forms part of the withdrawal deal but which would keep the legal treaty governing the U.K.’s relations intact, she has insisted.

If no solution could be agreed upon, a number of options on future relations would be put to MPs in a series of indicative votes, in a similar process to the one that had run on Monday and last Friday, in which MPs rejected all options put before them.

“The government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House,” Ms. May said following an intense day of Cabinet meetings that lasted seven hours. It came after a second round of indicative voting ended without a result on Monday. “We can and must find the compromises that will deliver what the British people voted for,” she said. “It requires national unity to deliver the national interest.”

During the meetings, Ms. May faced pressure from the divided voices in her Cabinet, ranging from those pushing for a no-deal exit if her deal isn’t agreed to, while others were eager to take no-deal off the cards and either opt for a softer Brexit, or a confirmatory public referendum on the deal.

While the option of customs union membership was defeated by just three votes on Monday, huge divisions within and across parties became apparent over the course of the votes. With just 10 days to go before the U.K. is set to crash out of the EU without a deal if no road forward is agreed, there have been warnings from the EU that simply signalling what MPs are not in favour of is not good enough to stave off a disorderly no-deal Brexit.

While the EU Parliament’s representative on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, warned that a hard Brexit seemed almost inevitable, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator on Brexit Michel Barnier said the option of no deal “looks very likely”. “No deal was never my intended scenario but day after day, it becomes more likely,” he said on Tuesday, following Monday’s turbulent session of the House of Commons.

He urged MPs to get behind the government’s withdrawal deal if they wanted the U.K. to leave the EU in an orderly manner. “This treaty is and will be the only one on the table.” He said it would still be possible for the U.K. to be granted a short extension if needed, if MPs approve the deal.

May 22 deadline

However, if Britain is to avoid participating in European Parliamentary elections, it must leave the EU before May 22, making it a very tight deadline. Any extension beyond this would require the U.K. to participate in the elections, which would present challenges both for the U.K. and the EU, who are fearful that the U.K.’s presence could be disruptive in a process that is set to be highly charged in any case, with right-wing and some Eurosceptic political forces making a play for seats.

Following the rejection of the withdrawal deal for a third time last Friday, Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission, announced the holding of an emergency summit in Brussels on April 10, at which European leaders will make the final call on whether to grant a further extension to the U.K. (if one is sought) or allow the U.K. to crash out without a deal.

There had been hopes that a shorter list of options chosen from the eight that were put to MPs last week would help identify a route forward that MPs could rally around. Alongside the customs union option, which lost by 273 to 276, MPs voted on one that is referred to as the so-called Common Market 2.0 — similar to the arrangements in place for Norway and the EU — with the U.K. remaining in the European Free Trade Association and the European Economic Area. This lost by 261 to 282.

They also voted on requiring any deal to be subject to a confirmatory public vote (280 to 292) and a final one that would seek to avoid a no-deal Brexit by first requiring the government to seek an extension and if one were not granted, then revoke Article 50 (191 to 292). Following the votes, Nick Boles, the MP who put forward the Common Market 2.0 proposal, resigned from the Conservative Party on the floor of the House of Commons, blaming the failure to find a route forward on his party’s failure to compromise.

The failure to find a route forward is likely to harden the government’s position that its deal is the only one possible. Significantly, while both the Common Market 2.0 and the Customs Union proposals were put forward by Conservative MPs, their backing in the indicative voting process came from Labour, with the vast majority of Conservatives voting against it. Therefore, were the government to push through with one of these, it would mean relying on the votes of Opposition MPs rather than their own ranks, which is thought to be highly unlikely.

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