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UK aims to salvage Brexit deal as EU says: make up your mind

March 19, 2019
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European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier answers a question during a press conference following a meeting of EU ministers for European Affairs at the EU Council building in Brussels, Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The European Union's Brexit negotiator says Prime Minister Theresa May must explain to EU leaders this week exactly why she wants an extension to the Brexit deadline beyond March 29. (AP Photo/Francisco Seco)

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan has been derailed in Parliament. Now she is at the mercy of an exasperated European Union.

May was preparing Tuesday to ask the EU for a delay of at least several months to Brexit after the speaker of the House of Commons ruled that she can’t keep asking lawmakers to vote on the same divorce deal that they have already rejected twice.

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc wouldn’t automatically grant the request. He said a long extension “must be linked to something new, a new event, or a new political process.”

“The real question is, what is the purpose of it. What is it for?” Barnier said in Brussels.

“To get out of this uncertainty, we need choices and decision from the United Kingdom.”

May had hoped to win over her domestic opponents and bring her deal back to Parliament before a summit of the 28-nation bloc in Brussels on Thursday and Friday.

That plan was scuttled Monday by House of Commons Speaker John Bercow, who declared that Parliament can only vote again if the deal is “fundamentally different” to the version rejected by 230 votes in January and 149 votes last week.

The deadlock leaves Britain’s plan to exit the European Union — still scheduled to take place on March 29 — in limbo.

The prime minister’s Downing St. office said May will send a letter formally requesting an extension to European Council President Donald Tusk on Tuesday or Wednesday. Downing St. wouldn’t say how long a delay she plans to ask for.

If the Brexit deal was approved, May had planned to ask the bloc for an extension until June 30 in order for Parliament to pass the necessary legislation for Britain’s departure.

Now a much longer delay looks likely. May has warned opponents that a failure to approve her agreement would mean a long, and possibly indefinite, delay to Britain’s departure from the EU.

It could also mean Britain crashing out of the bloc next week without a deal, even though Parliament has voted to rule out that option.

By law, the U.K. will leave the EU on March 29, deal or no deal, unless it secures a delay from the bloc. Withdrawing without a deal could mean huge disruption for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining EU countries.

The EU is intensely frustrated with Britain’s political paralysis, and says it will only grant an extension if U.K. politicians break their deadlock and come up with new proposals.

“If there is no decision, the date of March 29 comes and then it’s a ‘no-deal,‘” French European affairs minister Nathalie Loiseau said. “For the British to decide nothing is to decide on a ‘no-deal.’”

Loiseau said U.K. lawmakers “have said no to a ‘no-deal’ and they have said no to a realistic deal. They have to change their mind on one of the two options.”

A top official at the French presidency said a British request would be assessed on “two criteria: Is there a new plan likely to win a majority, and what will be the impact on the European Union?”

“The EU’s interests will be put before anything else,” said the official, who isn’t authorized to speak publicly in line with the presidency’s customary practices.

Germany’s European affairs minister, Michael Roth, said he expected “clear and precise proposals” from Britain.

“We are really exhausted by these negotiations,” Roth said at an EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels before the leaders’ summit.

EU leaders have been left bemused by Bercow’s ruling, in which he cited a 400-year-old parliamentary precedent against voting repeatedly on the same issue.

“I’ll concede that I wasn’t actively aware of the British Parliament’s rules of procedure from the 17th century, so I took note of this with interest yesterday,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

The British government is enraged at Bercow, believing he has overstepped the bounds of his role as speaker. As interpreter and enforcer of Parliament’s rules, the speaker has broad powers. But some ministers have accused him of plunging Britain into a constitutional crisis by upsetting the balance of power between the government and Parliament.

“It’s a political crisis,” said Catherine Haddon, a senior fellow at the Institute for Government think-tank. “It is shambolic and I think it’s showing up many of the confusing aspects of our constitution — particularly the convoluted parliamentary rules that have been a difficulty for MPs (members of Parliament) throughout this process.”

May, meanwhile, hasn’t given up on getting her deal approved. She could try to bring it back to Parliament next week if it can win over enough opponents.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that despite Bercow’s ruling, the deal could be voted on again if “the circumstances have changed.”

“The fact that a number of members of Parliament have said that they will change their votes points to the fact that there are things that are different,” he told Sky News.

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Lorne Cook reported from Brussels. Samuel Petrequin in Paris, Danica Kirka in London and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.

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