U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May says she's open to the possibility of delaying Britain's exit from the European Union that's planned for March 29, publicly accepting that option for the first time as she promised lawmakers a chance to vote on the question.
May announced the strategy shift as Britain stares down an important deadline, with less than five weeks before its scheduled exit from the EU.
Addressing the House of Commons, May offered three new commitments:
- To hold a "meaningful vote" on embracing an EU exit deal by March 12;
- If the March 12 vote fails, to hold another vote on March 13 "asking this House if it supports leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement;"
- If those votes fail, to vote on March 14 on whether to "seek a short, limited extension to Article 50" — the exit clause in the EU Constitution that was triggered after the Brexit vote.
All three of those votes would promise enormous political drama. But as May made clear, the March 13 vote would also put lawmakers on the record on a crucial Brexit question.
Driving the point home, May said the vote would mean that "the United Kingdom will only leave without a deal on the 29th of March if there is explicit consent in the House for that outcome" — a responsibility-sharing statement that elicited grumblings and cross-talk in the chamber.
"If Parliament opposes leaving with no deal — as expected — the government would seek a vote on whether to extend Brexit until the end of June at the latest," NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from London. "Of course, the European Union would still have to approve such an extension and has made it clear it would want an explanation of how a delay would help resolve the Brexit conundrum which has paralyzed British politics."
The possibility of a Brexit delay would offer a way to minimize the potentially chaotic effects of leaving the EU without a deal in place, as Britain's negotiations have failed to produce a breakthrough agreement. Despite urging from within her own party, the option of a delay is something May had dismissed.
On Tuesday, May reiterated that she doesn't want to see an extension. And she noted that any extension beyond June would put the U.K. in the awkward position of participating in the EU's new parliamentary elections.
"What kind of message would that send to the more than 17 million people who voted to leave the EU nearly three years ago now?" the prime minister asked.
May visited the House of Commons on the same day her office published a paper assessing Britain's readiness for leaving the EU without an exit deal that would establish rules for future economic, security and logistical relationships.
"I believe that if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of no-deal," May said, touching off a roar of protests from her critics in the chamber.
But, she said, the best option is to leave the EU with a deal in place.
May also said her government plans to hold talks with the EU about "alternative arrangements to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland" — a complicated sticking point in the plan for Britain to exit the European Union.
May said she and her team — Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay and U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox — have been in "focus discussions with the EU to find a way forward that will work for both sides, and we are making good progress in that work."