British Prime Minister Theresa May will seek a delay in pulling the country out of the European Union for at least three months as she tries once more to get her Brexit deal approved by Parliament.
Britain is supposed to leave the EU on March 29 and on Thursday, Ms. May won the backing of Members of Parliament to push for a delay. The vote was a rare victory for Ms. May in what has been a tortuous Brexit process and it clears the way for her to try to get her withdrawal agreement with the EU approved by MPs next week. If she succeeds, Ms. May will ask the EU to extend Brexit until the end of June. If the deal isn’t approved, Ms. May has said it will be up to the EU to decide on the length of any delay, which could be years.
The uncertainty surrounding Brexit is far from over and Ms. May faces an uphill battle to get the deal approved. It’s also not clear that the EU will agree to an extension, leaving the possibility that the country could crash out of the bloc on March 29. EU officials have said they would consider a delay but only if they understood what it was for. However, Donald Tusk, head of the EU Council that represents EU leaders, said on Thursday that he was open to a long delay if the deal was defeated next week. Ms. May has also seen her Brexit deal with the EU overwhelmingly rejected by MPs twice, even after it was revised in a bid to appease opponents. Based on the results of the last vote on the deal, which came on Tuesday, Ms. May must persuade 75 MPs to change their minds.
Most of the opposition has come from a group of fellow Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Ireland-based party whose ten MPs prop up Ms. May’s minority government. They argue that the deal would keep Britain tied too closely to the EU.
There are indications that Ms. May could be winning over some of the rebels. One of the big stumbling blocks has been a legal opinion from Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox. He essentially said that Ms. May’s revisions didn’t address the rebel’s fears that there wasn’t a legal way out of the deal’s backstop provision, which guarantees no hard Irish border by keeping Northern Ireland largely within the EU and the rest of Britain in a customs arrangement. The opponents argued that the backstop could keep Britain bound to the EU indefinitely and they seized on Mr. Cox’s analysis to vote against the deal. However, there are signs that his opinion will be modified to win them over by suggesting new ways of pulling out of the backstop.
Ms. May has also been leaning hard on DUP MPs. This week, the government outlined a tariff policy that took aim at Northern Ireland. The policy would only come into effect if Ms. May’s deal was defeated and the country left without an agreement. Most imports would be tariff free but the government would impose tariffs on a range of products, such as beef, lamb and ceramic goods, to protect farmers and certain industries. But the government would not introduce any tariffs, or border checks, on imports from Ireland into Northern Ireland.
The policy left many business leaders and farm groups in the province fuming. They said that if the measures went into effect, Northern Ireland would be flooded with tariff-free imports from Ireland, but Ireland would still impose EU tariffs on imports from the North. Irish beef farmers, for example, could still sell beef into Northern Ireland tariff free, but Northern Ireland farmers would face tariffs on their exports to Ireland. Northern Ireland could also become a tariff-free backdoor into the rest of the country. Irish exporters could send products into the rest of Britain via Northern Ireland and avoid British tariffs.
“The U.K.’s plan will lead to chaos and encourage lawlessness,” said Stephen Kelly, chief executive of Manufacturing NI. “Parliament needs to stop messing around and either approve a withdrawal agreement or, frankly, the Prime Minister needs to call this to a halt by revoking [Brexit].”
Brian Hilliard, an economist at Société Générale SA, said Northern Ireland’s economy would be decimated by the tariff policy. “Northern Ireland business sees this and is certain to be making its views clear to the DUP. So, for all its bluster, the DUP is probably looking for a fig leaf behind which to hide its potential change of stance,” he added.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster said on Thursday that she was in discussions with Ms. May. “We are talking to the government and to the Attorney-General at the moment to try and make a deal happen because we want to see Brexit working,” she told reporters.
In another bit of good news for Ms. May, Parliament did not back a motion to hold a second referendum on Brexit, something she has long opposed. However, those backing another referendum have vowed to try again, and Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington promised on Thursday that if Ms. May’s deal is defeated next week, Parliament will be given the chance to decide the way forward, which could include another referendum or revoking Brexit.