Prime Minister Theresa May stepped up her warnings on Monday that delaying Brexit was no way to solve the impasse in parliament over Britain’s departure from the European Union, saying a timely exit was “within our grasp”.
She said she wanted Brexit to happen as planned on March 29 and shrugged off expectations that she will be forced to delay to avoid leaving the EU in a disorderly way without an agreement.
With Britain’s Brexit crisis going down to the wire, May is struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU she says she needs to get her divorce deal through a divided parliament and smooth the country’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.
In Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh for an EU/Arab League summit, she met the bloc’s leaders to push her efforts to make her deal more attractive to parliament, where frustrated lawmakers are gearing up to try to wrest control of Brexit from the government.
While she said EU leaders had given her a sense that a deal could be won, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said they risked “sleep walking” into a no deal Brexit and European Council President Donald Tusk described any delay as “a rational decision”.
For now though, May is sticking firmly to the script, saying extending the negotiating period with the EU, which was triggered by Article 50, would not solve the Brexit problem.
“What it does is precisely what the word ‘delay’ says. It just delays the point at which you come to that decision,” she told reporters at the summit. “And I think that any extension of Article 50, in that sense, isn’t addressing the issue. We have (a deal) within our grasp.”
May has promised to bring back a vote on her divorce settlement to parliament by March 12.
But earlier, one UK official indicated delay could be an option if lawmakers refuse to pass May’s deal.
Tobias Ellwood, a defense minister, also told BBC radio: “If we cannot get this deal across the line, we are facing the prospect of having to extend.”
The EU has said it is willing to grant an extension if there is evidence parliament could pass the deal after rejecting it last month in the government’s biggest defeat in modern British history.
European Council President Donald Tusk said it was clear there was no majority in the British parliament for a deal.
“We will face an alternative, chaotic Brexit, or an extension,” Tusk told a news conference.
“I believe that in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational decision, but prime minister May still believes she will be able to avoid this scenario.”
The EU has said any agreement on a revised Brexit deal must be sealed by the bloc’s summit of national leaders on March 21-22 at the latest and May suggested that parliament could approve the deal before the bloc signed off on it.
While sterling rallied on the suggestion of a delay, May has to tread carefully, with eurosceptics poised to leap on anything they see as an attempt to thwart Brexit.
“I think it would be disastrous if we had a delay,” said Bernard Jenkin, a Conservative pro-Brexit lawmaker. “I think that faith in our politics – what faith is left in it – would evaporate.”
May decided to push back a vote on her deal to give more time for talks to secure changes to the Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
A spokeswoman for Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said progress was being made. Britain’s Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will hold more talks in Brussels on Tuesday.
But with the clock ticking down, some lawmakers are trying to prevent a no-deal Brexit, a scenario many say could damage the world’s fifth largest economy.
Several of their plans would involve delaying Britain’s departure beyond March 29 to win more time to break the deadlock in parliament.
Yvette Cooper, a Labour lawmaker, has called on parliament to back her bid to seek to force the government to hand power to parliament if no deal has been approved by March 13 and to offer lawmakers the option of requesting an extension.
But there is another, perhaps more attractive, proposal to the government, from two Conservatives, which would delay Brexit to May 23, the start of the European Parliament elections, if lawmakers have not approved a deal by March 12.
A government official said the proposal could be considered “helpful”.
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