The British Parliament on Tuesday ordered Prime Minister Theresa May to return to Brussels to reopen talks with European leaders on how Britain leaves the European Union.
The lawmakers also asserted control over Brexit by voting for a second measure that rejects leaving without a proper withdrawal agreement.
The vote against a “no-deal Brexit” was a defeat for May, who had argued that she needed to maintain the threat of leaving the EU without an accord in order wrest better terms from Brussels.
But that vote, 318-310, was the clearest signal yet that Parliament does not want Britain to crash out of the trading bloc without a years-long transition period that guarantees smooth trade, an orderly exit and protects the rights of citizens leaving in both Britain and Europe.
However, Parliament’s rejection of no-deal Brexit was non-binding. And it is still possible that May fails to strike a better deal and that Britain leaves the trade union with no deal.
“It is now clear there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this house for leaving the EU with a deal,” May said after the voting. “We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop.”
As May prepares to pack her bags for Brussels, she faces deeply skeptical European leaders, who have grown weary with her delays and the inability to pass her government’s withdrawal agreement through Parliament.
A spokesman for the European Council President Donald Tusk said the withdrawal agreement was “not open for renegotiation.”
The deal painstakingly negotiated between the EU and May “is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union,” Tusk’s spokesman said in a statement.
The Europeans seem in no mood to grant May what she needs to pass her deal, which is a new way for Britain to guarantee that whenever else this chaotic Brexit yields, it will not mean a return of a hard border – with checkpoints, passport controls and customs inspectors – between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The prime minister appeared before a House of Commons that has been trying to wrest control of Brexit from her, as the clock ticks down toward Britain’s scheduled departure in just 60 days.
Members of Parliament spent Tuesday debating and voting on cross-party amendments designed to steer the government one way or another on Brexit.
May’s initial deal was crushed by a humiliating defeat in Parliament two weeks ago. She survived a subsequent no-confidence challenge on a party-line vote.
Even after Tuesday’s votes, Parliament remains gripped by deadlock, without a consensus on how to exit the EU after four decades of free trade and shared governing.
The flamboyant, sharp-tongued speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, upended tradition by allowing a raft of possible amendments to be debated – leading his critics to charge that the speaker is trying to help backbench renegades foil Brexit by taking control away from the government.
The debate on Tuesday afternoon was heated.
“Order! The House must behave with decorum!” Bercow bellowed.
May’s attempt to re-negotiate the Brexit deal faces stiff opposition on the other side of the English channel.
EU leaders have presented a united front that the divorce deal is not renegotiable and that they are unwilling to back away from their ironclad insurance plan to keep the Irish border open.
More than a few policymakers in Brussels watched the British debate with mouths agape, noting that it appeared to reflect little about the political realities in the rest of the 27 EU countries. Many of the ideas on the table in the House of Commons on Tuesday were already considered by both British and EU negotiators over months of discussions, then discarded because both sides felt they were unworkable.
EU leaders and policymakers have repeatedly drilled that message in conversations with their British counterparts.
The current deal is “the best accord possible and is not renegotiable,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters in Cyprus as the British debate got underway. “We must all prepare ourselves” for a chaotic, no-deal Brexit, he said.
Most policymakers in Brussels assume that British will soon request to delay the departure deadline, but diplomats say they would need to be convinced that the extra time would go to constructive use before approving it.
And one diplomat shot down a persistent idea in Britain – that Irish policymakers would back away from their demand for guarantees about keeping the frontier with Northern Ireland open if faced with the prospect of a no-deal departure and an immediate imposition of a hard border.
The diplomat noted that the rest of the European Union needs the same guarantees to keep their tariff-free trading zone intact, and that if Britain departed, the EU itself would push Ireland to impose border controls. The diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive planning.
Five of the seven amendments on Brexit voted upon in the House were defeated.
In the parliamentary debate, Yvette Cooper, the Labour politician pushing a proposal to delay Brexit, repeatedly asked if May would consider asking Europea for an extension.
And May, repeatedly, dodged the question.
May said that she hoped to bring a revised deal back to the House of Commons for a meaningful vote “as soon as we possibly can.” If that hasn’t happened by Feb. 13, May said the government would make a statement and then give lawmakers a chance to re-open the debate on the way forward.
Other countries have raised concerns about the growing prospect of Britain exiting the EU without a deal – the default legal position.
Dan Coats, the head of U.S. intelligence, told a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “worldwide threats” on Tuesday that there would be economic disruptions if Britain fails to exit the bloc in a smooth and orderly way.
“This would cause economic disruptions that could substantially weaken the U.K. and Europe,” he said.
May said she will return to Brussels and seek “alternative arrangements” on the Irish border question – the “backstop” that locks Britain into a European customs regime unless a free trade deal obviates the need.
This will be a tough sell in Dublin, too. Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, tweeted Tuesday, “There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the U.K. and by the U.K. A bit of realism is needed at this stage.”
It was also unclear exactly what alternative arrangements May would be seeking in Brussels.
Angela Eagle, a Labour lawmaker, told Parliament that there was still “puzzlement” after listening to the prime minister for over an hour. “We are still no nearer any detail on what the phrase ‘alternative arrangements’ mean, except that the prime minister said that they were ‘arrangements’ that were ‘alternative.'”
The Northern Irish politician Sylvia Herman agreed. “The prime minister is trying to encourage this house to vote for an amendment which uses the words ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said. “Forgive me, prime minister, if I say those words are nebulous.”
(c) 2019, The Washington Post · William Booth, Karla Adam, Michael Birnbaum