UK Prime Minister Theresa May said she is “determined to get on with Brexit” following an emergency parliamentary debate over her request to delay the UK‘s departure from the European Union by three months.
The UK is currently due to leave on March 29, but the British parliament has twice rejected May’s divorce deal with the EU, prompting concerns that the UK could exit the bloc without a deal.
Wednesday’s emergency debate came hours after May wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk to request an extension.
Addressing parliament, May said the UK will not leave the EU on March 29 as planned, and once again urged MPs to back her deal with Brussels to avoid a no-deal scenario.
On Monday, Speaker of the House John Bercow made a surprise decision to not allow a third “meaningful vote” on May’s Brexit plan, forcing the prime minister to seek an extension to allow time to revamp the deal.
In a televised statement from 10 Downing St, May said she shared the frustration felt by many Britons who have “had enough” of endless Brexit debates and infighting – though she did not accept a role in causing it.
Instead, she blamed Parliament for the deadlock, and warned that if MPs did not back her deal it would cause “irreparable damage to public trust”.
“I passionately hope MPs will find a way to back the deal I’ve negotiated with the EU – deal that delivers on the result of the referendum, and is the very best deal negotiable… But I’m not prepared to delay Brexit any further than the 30th of June,” said the beleaguered prime minister.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Henry Newman, the director of the think tank Open Europe, described May’s speech as “an attempt to get the public behind her deal”.
“But will it actually persuade any MPs?” he asked, before adding: “She’s quite clear that she’s not going to accept a long extension. That’s raising the stakes for the EU.”
David Phinnemore, a European politics professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, said May was “trying to ensure Brexit goes through by putting pressure on MPs”.
Asked about the prime minister saying she did not want to ask for a long extension, Phinnemore commented: “May’s position could change if she is defeated again next week. If she is defeated, the only option she has with the European Council is to seek a lengthier extension.”
Earlier on Wednesday, May told MPs she did not want a long extension that would potentially involve the UK taking part in elections to the European Parliament in late May, as doing so would fail to honour the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum.
In her letter to Tusk, May said she would seek to delay the UK’s departure until June 30. Last week, British MPs voted in favour of a short extension to the deadline.
May wrote that she remained confident that British MPs would ratify the Brexit deal she negotiated with the bloc.
“But this clearly will not be completed before March 29,” she added.
May blamed Bercow and Parliament for failing to agree on a deal, saying Parliament had “indulged itself enough” on Brexit.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from outside the UK parliament in London, said May’s decision to seek a shorter delay also followed “heavy pressure” from pro-Brexit MPs in her party.
“If she’d gone to the EU and asked for a long extension, as indeed she’d said she was going to, she faced multiple resignations from her own cabinet,” Hull said.
The pound fell following May’s announcement, losing nearly one percent of its value on the day.
Mixed reaction in Europe
Tusk made a short statement on Wednesday in which he said any extension to the Brexit deadline would be conditional on UK MPs backing the government’s Brexit deal.
“In the light of the consultations that I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension will be possible but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons,” he said, adding that the length of any deadline is yet to be determined.
Earlier on Wednesday, the European Commission warned in an internal briefing note that delaying Brexit to June 30 would bring “serious legal and political risks”.
Speaking before May’s announcement, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stressed the difficulty of the EU making further concessions without a guarantee of UK parliamentary approval.
“As long as we don’t know what Britain could say yes to, no decision can be taken on our side either,” he told German broadcaster Deutschlandfunk.
“There will be no renegotiations, no new negotiations, no additional guarantees in addition to those already given. We have intensively moved towards Britain; there can be no more,” Juncker said.
French government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux said May needs to provide clear reasons for any delay to Brexit, which cannot be automatically guaranteed.
“France’s position is simple: the British prime minister must explain to us for how long and what for, and offer us guarantees,” Griveaux told reporters.
However, Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, told the Reuters news agency shortly before May’s announcement that Madrid was “ready to give more time” to the UK, saying it’s possible that a deadline could be granted next week.
“You know in Europe we always get a solution at the last minute,” Borrell said. “Maybe tomorrow is not going to be enough and we have to jump over … to just before the deadline”.
All 27 EU member states – excluding the UK – must agree on the length of any extension offered.
Additional reporting by Ylenia Gostoli