Threat of Brexit delay hangs over British PM Theresa May

British Prime Minister Theresa May met EU leaders in Egypt in Monday hoping to get changes to the withdrawal agreement that might get her deal through the UK parliament.
Mrs Theresa May speaking to the press during the European Union and Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday.
Mrs Theresa May speaking to the press during the European Union and Arab League summit at Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

May renews efforts for deal changes, says extension will merely postpone decision

SHARM EL-SHEIKH (Egypt) • Prime Minister Theresa May faces a growing threat that she will be forced to delay Brexit to avoid leaving the European Union without an agreement, a no-deal outcome described as "unacceptable" by one of the bloc's leaders.

With Britain's Brexit crisis going down to the wire, Mrs May is struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU she says she needs to get her divorce deal through a divided Parliament and smooth the country's biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.

The deadlock in Parliament has raised the prospect of Britain having to delay Brexit beyond March 29, something Mrs May is reluctant to do but which one official indicated could be an option if lawmakers refuse to pass her deal.

The official said ministers were "considering what to do if Parliament makes that decision", when asked about a possible extension.

But Mrs May has to tread carefully, with eurosceptics poised to leap on anything they see as an attempt to thwart Brexit.

In Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh for an EU-Arab League summit, Mrs May met the bloc's leaders to try to win support for her efforts to make her deal more attractive to Parliament, where frustrated lawmakers are gearing up to try to wrest control of Brexit from the government.

Several of their plans would involve extending Article 50, which triggered the two-year Brexit negotiating period, delaying Britain's departure beyond March 29.


Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told the BBC: "We are sleep-walking into a no-deal scenario. It's unacceptable and your best friends have to warn you... Come to a conclusion and close the deal."

European Council chief Donald Tusk said an extension to the March 29 deadline would be a "rational solution" given political developments.

Mrs May has said that any delay would simply postpone a decision on how Britain leaves the EU, something she argues Parliament needs to address by March 12, when she has promised to bring back a vote on the divorce settlement.

"An extension to Article 50, a delay in this process, doesn't deliver a decision in Parliament, it doesn't deliver a deal," she said yesterday. "What it does is precisely what the word 'delay' says. It just delays the point at which you come to that decision," she added.

The EU has said it will consider an extension, but only if Britain can offer evidence that a delay would break the deadlock in Parliament, which voted down the deal last month in the biggest government defeat in modern British history. It has, however, so far rebuffed Mrs May's attempts to reopen the withdrawal agreement.

The European Commission said yesterday it was the EU's assumption that Britain would leave as planned on March 29.

Lawmakers in Mrs May's Conservative Party and those in the main opposition Labour Party are stepping up efforts to try to ensure she cannot take Britain out of the EU without a deal at a vote due tomorrow on the government's next steps.

Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper, has called on Parliament to back her bid to seek to force the government to hand power to Parliament if no deal has been approved by March 13.

But there is another, perhaps more attractive, proposal to the government from two Conservatives, which would delay Brexit to May 23, the start of the European Parliament elections, if lawmakers have not approved a deal by March 12. A government official said the proposal could be considered"helpful".


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 26, 2019, with the headline 'Threat of Brexit delay hangs over British PM'. Print Edition | Subscribe