EU calls Brexit delay ‘rational’ as Britain's opposition Labour moots new referendum

European Council President Donald Tusk addresses a press conference at the end of the first joint European Union and Arab League summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Feb 25, 2019.
European Council President Donald Tusk addresses a press conference at the end of the first joint European Union and Arab League summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, on Feb 25, 2019.PHOTO: AFP

SHARM EL SHEIKH, EGYPT (AFP) – The European Union opened the door Monday (Feb 25) to Britain postponing its exit from the bloc beyond the March 29 deadline, as the main opposition Labour Party said it could eventually support a second referendum. 

European Council President Donald Tusk said he had discussed the “legal and procedural context of a potential extension” when he met Sunday (Feb 24) with British Prime Minister Theresa May, on the sidelines of an EU-Arab summit in Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh. 

“I believe in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution but Prime Minister May still believes she’s able to avoid this scenario,” Tusk told a closing summit press conference. 

The EU has been watching with growing alarm the possibility that Britain will crash out of the bloc without a deal, risking chaos on both sides of the Channel. 

Second referendum?

Britain remains as divided as ever over Brexit, which a narrow majority of voters called for in a June 2016 referendum.  May sparked outrage at home when she suggested Sunday that parliament may not be able to vote on her Brexit deal until March 12, just 17 days before Britain leaves the EU. 

The decision increases the chances that lawmakers will in a series of votes this week move to delay Brexit beyond March 29, to avoid a no-deal Brexit.  The opposition Labour Party on Monday raised the pressure, saying it would put forward its own plan for Brexit, which calls for Britain to stay in the EU customs union, as part of those votes. 

Labour then said if its plan was rejected, it would lend its support to an amendment on holding a second referendum on EU membership – without specifying a date.

 

“We are committed to... putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement. 

Corbyn, a lifelong eurosceptic who supports Brexit, has been highly ambiguous throughout the negotiations even though many of his MPs support a second referendum.  Meanwhile, May says she is still discussing with the EU possible amendments to the Brexit deal’s arrangements for the Irish border. 

Taking a united stand, the EU and its remaining 27 countries have repeatedly rebuffed May’s efforts to reopen the Brexit deal struck with her government in November. 

Since lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected her withdrawal deal last month, the Conservative prime minister has sought to address their concerns about the text’s “backstop” arrangement. 

‘Achieve that deal’

London wants the “backstop” – the clause binding Northern Ireland into the EU customs union if a new deal to keep the Irish border open is not found – to be time-limited or to be allowed to unilaterally end it. 

The EU opposes any changes to an arrangement designed to keep the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland flowing. It also sees the “backstop” as an insurance policy for the peace process in the British province of Northern Ireland.  Brussels however is not budging, though it is offering political reassurances. 

Tusk said “we’ll face an alternative chaotic Brexit or an extension” under the current circumstances where it is “absolutely clear” to him there is no majority in the British parliament for May’s deal.  Tusk said he told May that “no matter which scenario, all 27 (EU countries) will show maximum understanding and good will”. 

During a press conference Monday in Sharm El-Sheikh, May said she believes she can still deliver Brexit on time.  “I’ve had a real sense from the meetings I’ve had here and the conversations I’ve had in recent days that we can achieve that deal,” May said. 

The European Commission, the EU’s executive arm leading the Brexit negotiations, is still working on the assumption that Britain will leave the bloc on March 29, commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told reporters earlier in Brussels. 

She recalled that Britain would first have to request an extension and the remaining 27 EU countries would have to agree to it unanimously.  May’s negotiating team is due to return to Brussels on Tuesday for more talks.