Europe Politics

'Recklessness' and rumors: Brexit uncertainty rises after May delays key vote

Key Points
  • British lawmakers were meant to be given a vote this week on British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal.
  • That vote has been delayed and it will now take place just 17 days before the U.K. is meant to leave the EU.
  • May said on Sunday that her government is making progress in talks with the EU and that a deal is still "within our grasp."
Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, left, and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, stand for a photo opportunity ahead of talks in Brussels, Belgium, on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

British lawmakers were meant to be given a vote this week on British Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal but May has delayed it and it will now take place just 17 days before the U.K. is meant to leave the European Union (EU).

Still, May said on Sunday that her government is making progress in talks with the EU and that a deal is still "within our grasp."

She said that members of parliament (MPs) will have a fresh "meaningful vote" on the Brexit deal on March 12, just over two weeks before the March 29 departure date.

'Recklessness'

Opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn was among those who criticized the move to delay a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal, saying May was "recklessly running down the clock" near to the departure date.

Many MPs wanted a vote on the Brexit deal as soon as possible, concerned that a second rejection of May's deal could lead to a "no-deal" scenario whereby Britain leaves the EU abruptly with no transitional period nor trade deal in place. British businesses continue to complain that they have not been given enough clarity and reassurance over the U.K.'s future relationship with the EU.

European officials showed their displeasure at May's decision not to put forward her Brexit deal to a vote in the parliament this week, as originally planned. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker last week complained of "Brexit fatigue."

British MPs had already been given a vote on May's deal with the EU in January but they rejected it by 432 votes to 202.

Possible delays

Speculation is mounting that the U.K.'s departure will end up being delayed although keen Brexiteers in the British parliament would likely be angered at such a move.

British newspaper The Telegraph and the BBC have reported that May is considering a plan that would see the U.K.'s departure delayed for two months, however.

The paper and broadcasting network said government officials had drawn up a "series of options" to avoid resignations by ministers who want to ensure that Britain leaves with a deal. The BBC cited two unnamed government ministers as saying that the believe that May will "this week grant some kind of concession to allow for a possible delay."

Meanwhile, left-leaning newspaper The Guardian reported on Sunday that Brexit could be delayed until 2021 under plans being explored by the EU's most senior officials, the paper said citing unnamed EU sources.

MPs are due to vote on a series of amendments to the Brexit deal on Wednesday, one of which would essentially try to rule out a "no-deal" departure, demanding that Theresa May requests an extension to the departure deadline if parliament fails to approve her Brexit deal. A majority of MPs are believed to back the amendment.

Backstop

Theresa May is attending the EU-Arab League summit in Egypt on Monday and is expected to use it as an opportunity to press fellow EU leaders, including German leader Angela Merkel, for more guarantees on the thorny Irish "backstop" issue.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is among those attending the summit in Sharm El-Sheikh. He told CNBC Monday that he had spoken briefly to May on Sunday and would do so again Monday. Like other European leaders, Rutte reiterated that "the clock is ticking."

"On the European side we are all extremely anxious to get to a conclusion and we hope to avoid a 'no-deal' situation," he told CNBC Europe's "Squawk Box." "We are approaching the Brexit date in only four weeks and still the deal is not in sight."

If the U.K. requested an extension the EU would likely ask what the U.K. thought it could achieve if it was given more time, he added. "How (can we) avoid that we just go around in the same circles?" he said.

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The backstop is something of an insurance policy against a return to border checks (a "hard border") between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

Although the backstop would be enacted as a last resort if no trade deal is reached between the EU and the U.K. in a 21-month transition period after Brexit and is designed to prevent the return of a "hard" border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. It's contentious because it would mean that Northern Ireland (and potentially the rest of the U.K.) remains in a customs union with the EU for an indefinite amount of time.

The backstop could not be ended without the EU's permission. Dutch Prime Minister Rutte told CNBC that a collective agreement was needed that if the backstop was needed at all, "it will be as short as possible."

"Nobody on the EU side will want to keep the U.K. any longer in the backstop than necessary; only 'til a new arrangement for that border has been found. That level of confidence, that level of trust has to be on the table," he said.

EU leaders have refused to renegotiate the Brexit deal or backstop, however, only offering assurances that it is a last resort and unlikely to be used. The EU has previously said it is willing to consider an extension to the U.K.'s departure date.