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Brexit chaos as parliament heavily defeats PM May’s deal a second time

PRU, AFP | Video grab from the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) footage of the March 12, 2019 session.

British MPs overwhelmingly rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal for a second time on Tuesday, pitching Britain into the unknown just 17 days before it is due to split from the European Union.

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The House of Commons voted by 391 to 242 to reject the divorce deal, even after May secured further guarantees from Brussels over its most controversial elements.

May has promised to allow MPs to vote on a "no deal" option on Wednesday and if that is rejected, to decide on Thursday whether to ask the EU to delay Brexit.

May said after the vote that there are no current plans for further talks with the EU.

Labout leader Jeremy Corbyn after vote

The EU said the rejection of the deal makes the UK crashing out of the bloc without a deal much more likely, as it warned there is no more it can do.

The vote puts the world's fifth largest economy in uncharted territory with no obvious way forward; exiting the EU without a deal, delaying the March 29 divorce date, a snap election or even another referendum are all now possible.

May might even try a third time to get parliamentary support in the hope that hardline eurosceptic lawmakers in her Conservative Party, the most vocal critics of her withdrawal treaty, might change their minds if it becomes more likely that Britain might stay in the EU after all.

While she lost, the margin of defeat was smaller than the record 230-vote loss her deal suffered in January.

There is now the possibility that Britain could quit the world's biggest trading bloc without a deal, a scenario that business leaders warn would bring chaos to markets and supply chains, and other critics say could cause shortages of food and medicines.

The UK’s powerful CBI (Confederation of British Industry, which represents 190,000 businesses) issued a statement after the vote, stating, “Enough is enough, this must be the last day of failed politics.”

Delay to Brexit?

Top EU officials warned that the defeat had increased the chances of a chaotic "no-deal" British exit, which could mean major disruption for businesses and people in the UK and the 27 remaining EU countries.

The stinging defeat stripped away May's control over the course of Brexit and handed it to Parliament, which is divided about what to do next.

Speaking after the outcome was announced, a drawn and hoarse May confirmed that Parliament will vote Wednesday on whether to leave the EU on March 29 without an agreement. If that is defeated - the likely outcome - lawmakers will vote Thursday on whether to delay Brexit.

May warned lawmakers that "voting against leaving without a deal and for an extension does not solve the problems we face".

"The EU will want to know what use we mean to make of such an extension. This House will have to answer that question. Does it wish to revoke (Brexit-triggering) Article 50? Does it want to hold a second referendum? Or does it want to leave with a deal but not this deal?

Many pro-Brexit lawmakers believed the agreement kept the United Kingdom bound too closely to the EU, including Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), which is propping up the minority Conservative government.

EU warning

The EU, which had warned there would be no more changes or negotiations if Parliament threw out the deal, expressed exasperation at yet another Brexit crisis.

In a statement, the European Commission said the member states "have done all that is possible to reach an agreement".

"If there is a solution to the current impasse, it can only be found in London," it said, adding that "today's vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a 'no-deal' Brexit".

“There will be no third chance," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday.

Juncker: 'There will be no third chance'

European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt tweeted: "Brexit was about taking back control. Instead the UK spiralled out of control. Only cross-party co-operation, putting country first, can end this mess. If this happens we will fully engage."

Irish border a sticking point

The defeat came after May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced changes designed to overcome lawmakers' concerns about provisions ensuring the border between EU member Ireland and Britain's Northern Ireland remains open after Brexit.

The mechanism, known as the backstop, sparked fears among Brexit supporters that it could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.

May's hopes the concessions would be decisive were dashed when the Attorney General (the chief legal adviser to the government) Geoffrey Cox said the changes May had negotiated "reduce the risk" Britain could be trapped inside EU regulations - but did not eliminate it.

The two-page report published by the attorney general said the UK could still not extract itself from the terms of the divorce deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.

In a written legal opinion piece, Cox said that if UK-EU negotiations became stalled through "intractable differences," Britain would have "no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol's arrangements, save by agreement".

The so-called "backstop" solution for the Irish border -- designed to avert sectarian violence from returning to Northern Ireland -- is opposed by more ardent Brexit supporters. The Irish border question is an issue that Brussels will not budge on, stating that the removal of a physical border is key to the Good Friday peace deal.

Indefinite delay to Brexit…

Some British lawmakers had warned their Brexit-backing colleagues that rejecting the deal could lead to Britain's departure being postponed indefinitely, because a delay would give momentum to opponents of Brexit.

Tuesday's government defeat will embolden politicians calling for a second referendum on whether to leave the EU or remain, though there is no clear majority in Parliament for that course.

"The prime minister has run down the clock and the clock has been run out on her," said opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. "It's time that we have a general election and the people can choose who their government should be."

Protests

More than two and a half years after the country narrowly voted to leave the EU - and with no certainty about when or how it will - many Britons are simply fed up.

Hundreds of demonstrators celebrated outside Britain's parliament on Tuesday night, Europhiles wearing starry berets proudly waved European Union flags and signs reading "Stop Brexit" under Westminster's windows, chanting "Brexit is dead!" as the results were announced.

"It's marvellous, it's one step closer to staying in the EU," said Nina Hawl, 82, from London.

Global impact

Many fear that Brexit will divide the West as it grapples with both the unpredeictable US presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China, leaving Britain economically weaker and with its security capabilities depleted.

Supporters say it allows Britain to control immigration and take advantage of global opportunities, striking new trade deals with the United States and others while still keeping close links to the EU, which, even without Britain, would be a single market of 440 million people.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP, REUTERS)

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