January 30, 2019 / 10:36 AM / 6 months ago

Breakingviews - British parliament opts to run down Brexit clock 

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gestures as she speaks during a debate on her Brexit 'plan B' in Parliament, in London, Britain, January 29, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Britain’s parliament is running down the Brexit clock. Two months before the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, lawmakers voted to reopen talks about the terms of its departure. The decision is unlikely to resolve the impasse. But it delays crunch decisions – and increases the risk of Britain leaving without a deal.

Given Prime Minister Theresa May supported the idea, Tuesday’s vote looks like a remarkable recovery for a leader whose Brexit deal was rejected by parliament two weeks ago. In fact, it’s the opposite. May’s agreement with the EU includes a “backstop” that would keep Britain in a customs union to avoid controls at the Northern Irish border. The amendment passed on Tuesday calls for this to be replaced with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. In other words, May supported a motion that contradicts the deal she finalised two months ago and insisted could not be changed.

If May had secured a parliamentary majority for a more specific plan, she might have some hope of brokering a compromise with Brussels. But the “alternative arrangements” are too vague to guide any new negotiations. Brexit supporters have yet to come up with a credible proposal for avoiding customs checks in Northern Ireland. And committed eurosceptics will probably find reasons to reject any new compromise. May’s willingness to renege on a deal she spent a year negotiating will also reinforce the EU’s desire for a legally binding commitment.

The standoff will therefore probably continue until at least February 13, when parliament has another chance to vote on May’s deal. Yet there is little sign that lawmakers are ready to take control of proceedings. A proposal to force the government to seek an extension to the Brexit talks failed to win enough backers on Tuesday. And while a majority of lawmakers voted to reject a no-deal exit from the EU, they did not spell out how this would be achieved.

May’s defeat earlier in January was supposed to be the moment when parliamentarians started to eliminate Brexit options. Tuesday’s vote suggests they still prefer wishful thinking. The default option is that Britain leaves without a deal on March 29. That undesirable outcome has come a bit closer.


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