May Lays Down Ultimatum as Brexit Chaos Looms

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech in Grimsby, England, on Friday. (Christopher Furlong/PA via AP)

(CN) – It’s back to Brexit chaos for Great Britain and the Conservative government of Prime Minister Theresa May after negotiations with the European Union this week failed to deliver the breakthrough she was looking for.

Now another momentous and chaotic week looms for Britain – and uncertainty reigns. On Tuesday, Britain’s Parliament is set to vote on whether to back May’s Brexit plan. Her plan was rejected overwhelmingly in January and it is expected to be defeated again next week.

On Friday, May traveled to the seaport of Grimsby in northern England and delivered a desperate ultimatum to those standing in her way on Brexit: She urged them to get behind her deal or face a very uncertain future, “a moment of crisis.”

Both the EU and Britain have said they want to strike a deal to avoid Britain leaving the EU without a deal, which could cause a major economic shock. Britain is due to leave the bloc on March 29.

Her ultimatum on Friday was aimed at Brexiters, the right-wing hardline members inside her party who say her deal will leave Britain too closely tied to the EU. But her speech also took aim at European leaders who’ve rejected demands by Brexiters to make sure Northern Ireland doesn’t remain tied to the EU indefinitely.

Under May’s deal, Northern Ireland stays aligned to the EU as a way of preventing the return of border checks along the border with Ireland. The fear is that closing the border could re-awaken sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland and jeopardize the Good Friday Agreement that ended violence there.

May warned Brexiters that rejecting her deal could lead to delaying Brexit or seeing it vanish altogether.

“Back it and the UK will leave the European Union. Reject it and no one knows what will happen. We may not leave the EU for many months, we may leave without the protections that the deal provides,” she said. “We may never leave at all.”

The Labour Party, the opposition party, is pushing to allow Britons a chance to vote in a new referendum in which they could reject leaving the EU.

She warned that rejecting her deal would mean that “the only certainty would be ongoing uncertainty.”

Turning to the EU, she urged EU leaders to help get her Brexit deal “across the line.”

“The decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote,” she said.

Her government has asked the EU to agree to new conditions over Northern Ireland, but EU leaders have consistently rejected changing the deal. Brexiters say they could back May’s deal if the EU budges on Northern Ireland.

“My message to them is that now is the moment to act,” she said. “It needs just one more push.”

Following her speech, reporters asked May whether she took any responsibility for the Brexit impasse and chaos. She did not answer those questions and said she was focused on getting her deal done.

But it was apparent that the blame game had begun.

Earlier, her Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt had said on BBC that Europe would share a lot of the blame if May’s deal is rejected. He said the EU needed to be more flexible.

“This is a moment of change in our relationship between the UK and the EU and history will judge both sides very badly if we get this wrong,” Hunt said. “We want to remain the best of friends with the EU. That means getting this agreement through in a way that doesn’t inject poison into our relations for many years to come.”

In Brussels, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, told reporters that the EU was united and “not interested in the blame game.”

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, said that Brexit was a problem that the UK had created for itself and that the EU had made many compromises already, according to the Guardian newspaper.

Besides seeking concessions from the EU, May has been working to get Labour members to support her deal. Many Labour members represent constituencies that voted to leave the EU.

To that end, May promised to ensure Parliament would be allowed to adopt future EU changes on worker’s rights after Brexit. She also called for setting up a $2.1 billion development fund aimed at Labour-backing regions that voted for Brexit.

Making her Friday speech in Grimsby was seen as a symbolic move too. Grimsby is one of those Labour towns that voted to leave the EU and it has a long history as a fishing town.

In the run-up to the referendum in 2016, backers of Brexit were effective in making fishing a central theme by arguing that Britain had lost control of its seas under the EU’s common fishing policy. They argued that Britain’s waters were invaded by outside fishermen.

In her speech, May alluded to these themes, saying her deal would allow Britain to “take back control” of its waters. She also said Grimsby’s busy seaport would benefit from Brexit because Britain would be able to expand its trade with the rest of the world.

Talks were to continue between the EU and Britain over the weekend, but no breakthroughs were expected, British media reported.

If the House of Commons rejects May’s deal on Tuesday, votes on whether to leave the EU without a deal or delay Brexit are scheduled to take place over the following two days.

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

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