LONDON (AP) — Britain’s government and opposition were clinging to hope Monday of finding a compromise Brexit deal, 48 hours before Prime Minister Theresa May must try to persuade European Union leaders to grant a delay to the U.K.’s departure from the bloc.
If the bloc refuses, Britain faces a sudden and chaotic departure on Friday, the Brexit deadline previously set by the EU.
May sought talks with the opposition Labour Party after Parliament three times voted down her divorce deal with the EU. Three days of negotiations last week failed to yield a breakthrough, with Labour saying the Conservative government had failed to offer concrete changes to its Brexit plan.
Labour favors a softer Brexit than the government has proposed, including a close economic relationship with the bloc through a customs union.
Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright said Monday that both parties “must make sure we’re all prepared to compromise.”
“There’s some urgency to it, but I do think it’s important for everyone to take their responsibilities seriously, whatever party they come from, and try and get to a point where we leave the EU, as people have said they wish to do, and to do it on the best possible terms,” he told the BBC. “I think that’s achievable.”
After U.K. lawmakers three times rejected May’s agreement with the bloc that was struck late last year, the EU gave Britain until April 12 to approve a withdrawal plan, change course and seek a further delay to Brexit, or crash out of the EU with no deal to cushion the shock.
Economists and business leaders warn that a no-deal Brexit would lead to huge disruptions in trade and travel, with tariffs and customs checks causing gridlock at British ports and possible shortages of goods.
Worries about a no-deal Brexit are especially acute in Ireland, the only EU member state to share a land border with the U.K. Any customs checks or other obstacles along the invisible frontier would hammer the Irish economy, and could undermine Northern Ireland’s peace process.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was due in Dublin on Monday for talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
May has asked the EU to delay Brexit until June 30, to give Britain time to approve and implement a withdrawal agreement. The bloc’s leaders are due to meet in Brussels Wednesday to consider the request.
An extension requires unanimous approval from the 27 remaining national leaders, some of whom are fed up with Brexit uncertainty and reluctant to prolong it further.
Any compromise between May’s government and Labour is sure to inflame divisions within each party over Brexit. Labour is formally committed to enacting the voters’ decision to leave the EU, but many of its lawmakers want a new referendum that could keep Britain in the bloc. They will be angry if the party actively helps bring about the U.K.’s departure.
May’s rapprochement with Labour infuriated pro-Brexit lawmakers in her Conservative Party, who say Britain must cut ties to the EU in order to forge an independent economic policy.
Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiteer, said a customs union would “enslave” the U.K.
Johnson tweeted: “We should not agree to be non-voting members of the EU, under the surrender proposed by (Labour leader) Jeremy Corbyn — it cannot, must not and will not happen.”