February 25, 2019
By Elizabeth Piper
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May faces a growing threat that she will be forced to delay Brexit, a move that risks a showdown with eurosceptics in her Conservative Party just weeks before Britain is due to leave the European Union.
With Britain’s Brexit crisis going down to the wire, May is struggling to get the kind of changes from the EU she says she needs to get her divorce deal through a deeply divided parliament and smooth the country’s biggest policy shift in more than 40 years.
In Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh for an EU/Arab League summit, she 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.
Her decision to push back a vote on her deal into March, just days before Britain is due to leave, has prompted lawmakers to step up attempts to stop a no-deal Brexit, a scenario many businesses say could damage the world’s fifth largest economy.
Several of their plans would involve extending Article 50, which triggered the two-year Brexit negotiating period, delaying Britain’s departure beyond March 29 – something May has said would only delay an inevitable decision.
A government official said ministers were “considering what to do if parliament makes that decision” (does not pass the deal), when asked about a possible extension.
Tobias Ellwood, a defense minister, also told BBC radio: “If we cannot get this deal across the line, we are facing the prospect of having to extend.”
The EU has said it will consider an extension to the Brexit process, but only if Britain can offer evidence that such a delay would break the deadlock in parliament, which resoundingly voted down the deal last month in the biggest government defeat in modern British history.
At the EU/Arab League summit, May met German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte – a clear bid to get their support for her attempt to get substantive changes to a deal agreed in November.
But she faces increasing frustration in Brussels, which has rebuffed her attempts to reopen the agreement so far.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Sunday when asked if he was running out of things to give on Brexit: “I have a certain Brexit fatigue.”
TROUBLE IN PARLIAMENT
May needs to find a way to assuage concerns in Britain over the Northern Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border, and possible focus for renewed violence, between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
But with her efforts taking more time than expected, officials on both sides are increasingly suggesting a delay.
So far, May has stuck to her line that she intends to lead Britain out of the EU on March 29.
On Sunday, when she announced that the vote in parliament on her Brexit agreement would only come by March 12, she maintained that a deal was still “within our grasp”.
But there are many who disagree.
Lawmakers in her Conservative Party and those in the main opposition Labour Party are stepping up efforts to try to ensure May cannot take Britain out of the EU without a deal at a vote which is due on Wednesday on the government’s next steps.
Yvette Cooper, a Labour lawmaker, 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 and to offer lawmakers the option of requesting an extension.
“The prime minister’s remarks today make it even more vital that the House of Commons votes for our bill to try to restore some common sense to this process,” Cooper said.
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”.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)