London, United Kingdom | AFP | The British government is seeking to win more time to secure EU concessions on Brexit that could pass parliament and avert a chaotic split from the bloc on March 29.
Businesses and governments are on edge because Britain is just weeks away from its scheduled departure from the European project after 46 years and still has no firm arrangements in place.
The UK parliament last month roundly rejected a Brexit deal Prime Minister Theresa May had sealed with the remaining 27 EU leaders.
MPs are set to vote again on Britain’s Brexit options on February 14. But a member of May’s cabinet pledged Sunday to give parliament a further ballot two weeks later — a measure meant to give the premier more time for talks with the EU.
Her meetings in Brussels on Thursday made no breakthrough and fears of a “no-deal” scenario that gridlocks trade are running high.
May’s housing minister James Brokenshire insisted Sunday that the government had a clear strategy and timeline aimed at getting an agreement that Britain’s splintered parliament can pass.
“What gives certainty is a deal, and that’s why we want to see people getting behind us, getting behind this process that we now have,” Brokenshire told the BBC.
He pledged to give parliament a fresh vote on Britain’s options by February 27 if May does not come back with new concessions before then.
In the vote this week lawmakers are set to have their say on amendments that could limit May’s options and give parliament a broader say over the Brexit process.
Brokenshire’s promise of another vote two weeks later is designed to discourage lawmakers from binding the government’s hands this week.
It is also meant to postpone a revolt by cabinet ministers who want to take a no-deal Brexit off the table for good.
– ‘My deal or worse’ –
The opposition Labour party has denounced May’s strategy as time-wasting aimed at forcing parliament to vote through a deal at the last moment.
“We shouldn’t be put in a position where the clock is run down and the prime minister says it’s either my deal or even worse,” Labour’s Brexit pointman Keir Starmer told The Sunday Times.
In a letter to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dated Sunday, May opposed his party’s appeal for the country to remain in a customs union with Brussels.
But in efforts to build cross-party support for a Brexit deal, she offered flexibility on Corbyn’s calls to keep up with EU measures to protect the environment and workers’ rights, asking for further talks with Labour “as soon as possible”.
There are few signs of concessions coming May’s way from Brussels.
May’s Brexit minister Stephen Barclay will meet EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday and foreign minister Jeremy Hunt will visit Paris and Warsaw this week.
The British premier is set to meet European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker again before the end of the month.
The sides are stuck on the issue of how to keep the Irish border open after Britain leaves.
Brexit backers in May’s party think the so-called “backstop” arrangement in the current deal would keep Britain indefinitely tied to EU rules.
May’s Northern Irish coalition party also argue that it will splinter their province from mainland Britain.
But Brussels calls the arrangement essential for both keeping the border open and preserving the European Union’s integrity.
May has been trying to win a legal assurance giving Britain the right eventually to drop the backstop and negotiate its own trade deals.