British MPs vote overwhelmingly to reject Brexit deal
LONDON - AFP/AP
British lawmakers have voted overwhelmingly to reject the EU divorce deal struck between London and Brussels, in a historic vote that leaves Brexit hanging in the balance.
MPs in parliament’s lower House of Commons voted by 432 to 202 to reject Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with the EU.
"The house has spoken and the government will listen," May said, immediately after the vote.
"It is clear that the house does not support this deal but tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support.
"Nothing about how, or even if, it intends to honour the decision" taken by the British people to leave the European Union, she said.
"Listen to the British people, who want this issue settled," said May.
No-confidence vote considered
May said the government needed to know if it still had the support of the House of Commons. She said lawmakers would consider the no-confidence motion on Jan. 16.
Her statement pre-empted a call for a confidence vote by opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn.
Corbyn urged lawmakers to defeat the government and trigger a national election.
The defeat leaves May’s leadership wobbling and the government with just a few days, until Jan. 21, to come up with a "Plan B."
Unless a deal is ratified, Britain is set for a disorderly exit from the bloc on March 29, with potentially tumultuous economic and social consequences.
Further talks possible
May made it her mission to carry out the wishes of voters after she became premier in July 2016, putting aside her own initial misgivings and stating repeatedly that "Brexit means Brexit".
But facing a heavy drubbing, May decided to postpone a parliamentary vote in December on the Brexit deal in the hope of winning concessions from Brussels -- and that a Christmas break would change lawmakers’ minds.
EU leaders came back with only non-binding clarifications, and just a handful of new MPs have rallied to May’s side.
The UK government’s current plan appears to be to try to ram a very similar version of the agreement through parliament on a second or possibly even third attempt.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker returned to Brussels from Strasbourg on Jan. 14 "to handle the situation after the vote," according to his office.
In Strasbourg, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas raised the possibility of further talks while ruling out a full renegotiation of the text.
Hardline Brexiteers and Remainers oppose the agreement for different reasons and many fear it could lock Britain into an unfavourable trading relationship with the EU.
Bitter debates about Britain’s place in the world have dominated the national discourse ever since the referendum, dividing families and playing out in front of parliament on Jan. 15.
Financial markets were also watching closely, with several currency trading companies roping in extra staff for the vote and at least one putting a cap on trades to avoid excessive movements.
Brexit may be delayed
Criticism of the deal is focused on an arrangement to keep open the border with Ireland by aligning Britain with some EU trade rules, if and until London and Brussels sign a new economic partnership which could take several years.
Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, upon which May relies for her parliamentary majority, told the BBC his party would not be forced into backing the deal by fears over the border.
The government must set out what happens next by Jan. 21, if -- as is expected -- it survives the no-confidence vote.
Speculation is growing on both sides of the Channel that May could ask to delay Brexit.
But a diplomatic source told AFP any extension would not be possible beyond June 30, when the new European Parliament will be formed.
The withdrawal agreement includes plans for a post-Brexit transition period until a new relationship is drawn up, in return for continued budget contributions from London.
Without it, and if there is no delay, Britain will sever ties with its nearest neighbours with no agreement to ease the blow.