Breakingviews - Delaying tactics could bring Brexit to a head

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to members of media as she arrives to attend a summit between Arab league and European Union member states, in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, February 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Procrastination could bring Britain’s Brexit dilemma to a head. Theresa May on Sunday again delayed the crucial vote on her deal to leave the European Union, shunting it to March 12 – little more than a fortnight before the UK’s official departure date. If the Prime Minister still can’t command a majority, some parliamentarians want her to postpone Brexit. More time won’t make Britain’s hard choices any easier, but might help to rule out the worst option.

With little more than a month to go until Britain is due to leave, the country still faces the same choices as when May agreed her flawed compromise with the EU in November. Parliament can approve a version of that deal, possibly with some cosmetic tweaks. It can decide to stay in the EU, probably after another referendum. Or it can take the economically damaging leap of leaving without a deal. For all the political drama of the past three months, including parliamentary defeats, confidence votes in May and her government, and defections from both the ruling Conservative and opposition Labour parties, that fundamental calculus has not changed.

The latest talk of delays might help narrow those options, however. Members of Parliament are plotting to force the government to request an extension of the two-year departure process, which is due to end on March 29, if lawmakers again reject May’s plan. If passed, that motion – set to be debated this week – would reduce the risks of no deal. Hard-line eurosceptics might then drop their opposition to May’s plan, which would become the hardest version of Brexit still on the table.

Extending the Brexit date brings challenges of its own. For one, the EU’s other 27 members must all approve it. Postponing by more than a few months means Britain would still be a member of the bloc when elections for the European Parliament are held at the end of May. And there’s little prospect that more time would get the country’s fractured political factions closer to a consensus on what to do next. But it would at least show that politicians don’t want to push the country off a cliff. In the current confusion, that would count as progress.


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