British Prime Minister Theresa May faces a growing threat that she could be forced to delay Brexit, a move that risks a showdown with eurosceptics in her Conservative Party just weeks before the UK is due to leave the EU.
With the Brexit crisis going down to the wire, May has been struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU that she has said she needs to get her divorce deal through a deeply divided British Parliament and smooth the country’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.
In Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, where the EU and League of Arab States were holding a summit, she met the union’s leaders to try to win support for 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.
Her decision to push back a vote on her deal to next month, just days before Britain is due to leave, has prompted lawmakers to step up attempts to stop a no-deal Brexit, a scenario that many businesses have said could damage the world’s fifth-largest economy.
Several of their plans would involve extending the Article 50 procedure that limits the Brexit negotiating period to two years, delaying Britain’s departure beyond March 29 — something that May has said would only delay an inevitable decision.
When asked about a possible extension, a UK government official said that ministers were “considering what to do if parliament makes that decision” not to pass the deal.
“If we cannot get this deal across the line, we are facing the prospect of having to extend,” UK Parliamentary Undersecretary of State for Defence People and Veterans Tobias Ellwood told BBC Radio.
The EU has said that it would consider an extension to the Brexit process, but only if the UK can offer evidence that such a delay would break the deadlock in parliament, which resoundingly voted down a deal last month in the biggest government defeat in modern British history.
At the EU-Arab League summit, May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte — a clear bid to get their support for her attempt to get substantive changes to a deal agreed in November last year.
However, she faces increasing frustration in Brussels, which has so far rebuffed her attempts to reopen the agreement.
When asked if he was running out of things to give on Brexit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Sunday said: “I have a certain Brexit fatigue.”
May needs to find a way to assuage concerns in the UK over the Northern Irish “backstop,” an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border, and possible focus for renewed violence, between the UK country of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
However, with her efforts taking more time than expected, officials on both sides are increasingly suggesting a delay. So far, May has stuck to her line that she intends to lead the UK out of the EU on March 29.
On Sunday, when she announced that the vote in parliament on her Brexit agreement would only come by March 12, she maintained that a deal was still “within our grasp.”
Yet there are many who disagree.
Lawmakers in her Conservative Party and those in the Labour Party are stepping up efforts to try to ensure that May cannot take the UK out of the EU without a deal, at a vote that is due on Wednesday on the government’s next steps.
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.
“The prime minister’s remarks today make it even more vital that the House of Commons votes for our bill to try to restore some common sense to this process,” Cooper said.
However, there is another, perhaps more attractive, proposal, 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 that the proposal could be considered “helpful.”
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