Fears of Britain Crashing Out of EU Grow

An activist poses with his face painted in the European Union and British flag colors during an anti-Brexit protest outside EU headquarters in Brussels on Thursday. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

(CN) – Fears are growing that Great Britain may be headed toward a potentially chaotic, and some argue catastrophic, exit from the European Union by the end of next week.

Those fears were stoked by a divisive televised speech British Prime Minister Theresa May gave on Wednesday night and by statements French President Emmanuel Macron made in Brussels on Thursday about the risk Britain may exit the EU without a deal spelling out the terms of the divorce.

Leaving the EU without a deal is a scenario politicians on all sides have said they want to avoid. Such an exit could be an economic disaster, leaving millions of people in legal limbo and leading to the return of border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

EU leaders indicated Thursday that a delay to Brexit is still possible, but warned that a rejected offer by Parliament would lead to a no-deal exit next week, according to reports. Britain is set to leave the bloc on March 29.

High anxiety surrounds the late negotiations. The British military even established a command center in a bombproof bunker under London’s defense ministry to plan the military’s role in a potential no-deal Brexit.

In her speech, May seemingly made her dire situation even worse by blaming Parliament for the Brexit chaos. Since December, May has failed to get a majority in a deeply divided House of Commons to approve a withdrawal deal she spent two years negotiating with the EU. The deal lays the foundations for the EU and Britain to continue trading and working together. But it has been rejected for either keeping Britain too closely aligned to the EU or not closely enough.

Her speech was panned as divisive, shifting blame away from herself and even stoking violence against members of Parliament.

Pundits and politicians said she made a grave mistake by antagonizing the very same people in Parliament she needs to approve her much-despised divorce deal.

“Of this I am absolutely sure: you, the public, have had enough,” May said. “You’re tired of the infighting. You’re tired of the political games and the arcane procedural rows.”

She continued: “You want this stage of the Brexit process to be over and done with. I agree. I am on your side. It is now time for MPs to decide.”

And MPs – members of Parliament – responded angrily with many charging she was guilty of inciting violence against them.

“Her speech was incendiary and irresponsible,” said Wes Streeting, a Labour member, on Twitter. “If any harm comes to any of us, she will have to accept her share of responsibility.”

Emotions around Brexit are tense – as they have been for years. Prior to the 2016 referendum, a Labour member who was outspoken against leaving the EU was killed in an attack. Parliamentarians say they are worried about their safety because they receive death threats.

“Resorting to the ‘blame game’ as the PM is doing is a low blow,” said Sam Gyimah, a Tory member, on Twitter. He charged that his party’s leader was seeking to “run down the clock and rule out other options. Toxic.”

Politically, the speech may have backfired by upsetting politicians who were beginning to warm to the idea of supporting her deal to avoid Britain leaving the EU without a deal or seeing Brexit itself not happen.

David Jones, a Tory member, said on Sky News television that May’s speech had turned several of these wavering parliamentarians against her deal.

“They have been pretty upset,” Jones said. “Frankly, the blame is being shifted to members of Parliament.”

May is seeking to get Parliament to vote on her deal next week one more time. Parliament has twice rejected it overwhelmingly. Many blame May for the Brexit mess, saying she failed to reach across party lines to come up with an exit plan and bungled the negotiations. 

Although May has ruled out leaving the EU without a deal, the Brexit deadline can only be delayed if European leaders agree to an extension. If they don’t, then Britain could find itself leaving the bloc next week regardless. Another option would be for May to revoke Brexit, but she has rejected this possibility.

At the same time, an influential hardcore group inside May’s Tory party is pushing to leave the EU without a deal. They argue that this is the only path now available to carry out the 2016 referendum mandate. May listens to this key group and in the past she has said leaving the EU without a deal would be better than subjecting Britain to a bad deal.

On Thursday, EU leaders met in Brussels at a summit and discussed an extension. European leaders are showing greater reluctance to consider an extension, expressing their own frustration with the impasse in Britain.

A tough stance by the EU on Britain also sends a warning to other European nations tempted to abandon the bloc. Anti-EU sentiment is on the rise in Europe, but in the wake of the Brexit debacle far-right leaders have become much less outspoken about exiting the EU.

In recent weeks, the EU has rebuffed May’s attempts to renegotiate portions of the deal hard-line Tory members and their allies have objected to. These members are key to passing May’s deal and they remain unwilling to support it because they say Britain would remain closely attached to the EU’s rules and laws.  

As it stands, then, Parliament is expected to reject her deal again if it comes up for a third vote.

In speaking with reporters in Brussels, French President Macron warned that if Parliament doesn’t approve her deal, “it will guide everybody to a no deal for sure.”

For now, May is seeking to get the EU to accept delaying Brexit to the end of June in the event her deal is approved. For now, at least, she has said she isn’t seeking a longer delay.

And that too is a source of contention. Many in Parliament want Brexit to be delayed much longer to give the government time to come up with other possible Brexit solutions. For example, many parliamentarians say a second referendum should be held to allow Britons to choose whether they want to leave the EU at all or do so with a deal.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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