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British MPs vote to request extension of Brexit deadline

Isabel Infantes, AFP | Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray (pictured left) talks with pro-Brexit supporter Joseph Afrane as they walk near the Houses of Parliament in London on March 13, 2019

British lawmakers vote Thursday on whether to ask the European Union for an extension to its March 29 Brexit deadline, after rejecting the prospect of a “no-deal” exit from the bloc.

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The government will ask parliament to endorse its plan to hold another vote on the divorce deal in the coming days and to request a delay whatever the outcome.

Under the current rules, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union at 11 p.m. (GMT) on March 29, on the expiry of the so-called "Article 50" Brexit process.

Although lawmakers have rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal twice – in January and again earlier this week – they voted on Wednesday against leaving the European Union without an agreement.

The extension would be until June 30 if the Brexit deal is finally approved. If lawmakers vote against the agreement yet again, May warned that she would have to seek a longer delay, likely forcing the UK to take part in Europe’s upcoming parliamentary elections.

There are some who hope that an extension could lead to a second referendum on Brexit - a prospect May has adamantly refused to back.

A reluctant Europe

Any request for an extension would still have to go before EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on March 21-22.

They have already stated that they will only agree to push back the Brexit date if the UK makes concrete proposals to break the crisis.

Unless British lamakers agree to the deal or European leaders unanimously approve a delay, the UK would still have to crash out of the EU with no deal in place on March 29.

Guy Verhofstadt, leader of the European Parliament's Brexit committee, tweeted that he is "against any extension of Article 50, even for just 24 hours, if it is not based on a clear majority from the House of Commons in favour of something."

May will also have to convince "each and every" EU country to grant any delay, Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok stressed on Wednesday.

'Negotiation finished'

The series of votes has deepened divides in the UK, both in parliament and in the country at large as protesters of both factions once again gathered outside Westminster.

"Unfortunately our deceitful prime minister and many in her cabinet have tried to derail the Brexit process by never standing strong to the EU and saying if we don't get a proper deal we're just walking away," said Brexit supporter Suzanne Hall, 56.

"I think there needs to be a second referendum," countered Christine Bobin, 64. "I don't think people voted knowing what was going to happen."

This week's machinations in parliament come two years after the UK set the clock ticking on its departure from the EU following the 2016 referendum.

May had hoped that last-minute assurances from EU chiefs on key sticking points in her deal, chiefly the backstop proposal to keep the Irish border open, would get it through parliament.

However, she was torpedoed by legal advice from her Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who said the changes would not allow Britain to leave the backstop of its own accord, raising fears that the country would be stuck in an indefinite customs union with the EU.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Wednesday said Brussels will not rework the painstakingly-negotiated withdrawal agreement.

"Why would we prolong the negotiation? To do what? Because the... negotiation is finished, we have a treaty, it's there," he said, holding up the 585-page document.

No-deal risk

Barnier warned that "the risk of no-deal has never been higher".

The British government on Tuesday said that in such an eventuality it would scrap tariffs on 87 percent of imports and would not apply customs checks on the border with Ireland.

Anti-Brexit supporters are also buoyed, believing that the failure of May's deal and lawmakers rejection of a no-deal exit brings the country a step closer to a second referendum or to stopping Brexit entirely.

May gave them a boost on Wednesday, telling parliament: "We could leave with the deal which this government has negotiated, but subject to a second referendum, but that would risk no Brexit at all."

Lawmakers first rejected the Brexit deal in January by a historic margin of 230 votes. Though some eurosceptics changed their minds, Tuesday's defeat was still by a hefty 149 votes.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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