(CN) – The possibility of pushing back the fast-approaching March 29 deadline for Britain’s exit from the European Union grew Tuesday as Prime Minister Theresa May offered to allow lawmakers to vote on delaying Brexit, after another tense and raucous session in Parliament.
But such a vote would only occur if the British Parliament first rejects a withdrawal deal May is seeking to renegotiate with the EU. A new vote on her deal is now scheduled for March 12.
In January, May suffered a major defeat when Parliament overwhelmingly rejected that deal, which her government had been working on for about two years.
The biggest stumbling block has been over Northern Ireland. Under the deal, Northern Ireland would remain closely aligned with EU rules and laws until a future trade agreement is worked out. But many within her party and her Northern Irish allies say that arrangement is unacceptable and would hamper Britain’s independence from the EU.
May’s government is seeking to renegotiate that portion of the deal, but the EU has insisted that won’t happen.
If Parliament once again rejects her deal, then on March 13 the House of Commons would hold a vote on whether Britain should leave the EU without a deal, May said. Leaving without a deal is considered very dangerous, potentially causing major economic shock.
If that too is rejected, then the following the day, March 14, Parliament would hold a vote on whether Britain’s EU exit should be temporarily delayed, according to May. She reportedly allowed for a Brexit extension vote under pressure from many within her cabinet and party desperate to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.
Still, in her speech to Parliament, May remained firm about her desire to leave the EU on March 29, and doing so on the terms hammered out in her deal.
“Let me be clear – I do no want to see Article 50 extended,” May said, referring to an EU treaty article that allows a member state to leave the bloc.
She said an extension should not go beyond the end of June. If Britain stays within the EU past the end of June, it would be required to take part in European elections in May, the prime minister said.
“What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU merely three years ago?” May said.
She said extending the Brexit deadline would change very little and leave Britain facing “a much sharper cliff edge in a few months time.”
She said “seeking an extension now” does not “make a deal any easier,” and urged Parliament to get behind her deal and “send a clear message” to the EU.
May also took aim at Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s announcement on Monday that he now supports holding a second referendum. Those opposed to leaving the EU have demanded that Britons be allowed to vote in a second referendum on whether to leave to the EU. In 2016, about 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the bloc.
“He wants to hold a divisive second referendum which would take us back to square one,” May said of Corbyn.
She said holding another referendum would be an affront to the majority who voted to leave.
“The very credibility of our democracy is at stake,” she said.
In his reply in Parliament, Corbyn shot back that May’s government was responsible for “shambolic handling of Brexit.”
“This is not dithering, this is a deliberate strategy to run down the clock,” Corbyn said of May’s latest plans for the mid-March votes. Labour contends that May is being pushed by hard-line Brexit Conservative members to leave the EU without a deal.
“It is the prime minister’s obstinacy that has blocked a deal,” Corbyn charged. “The prime minister has become quite the expert at kicking the can down the road. The problem is the road is running out.”
Corbyn is seeking to oust the Tory government and force new general elections. But his own party has splintered in recent days over Brexit and allegations that he has allowed anti-Semitic sentiment to flourish within his party’s ranks.
Eight Labour members left the party last week to form a new centrist party. Three Conservative Party members also left their party and joined the new group.
The Conservatives are riven too. British media reported that May’s decision to allow a vote on delaying Brexit was meant to appease members in her cabinet threatening to resign.
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)