LONDON – European leaders will decide Thursday whether to grant the United Kingdom an extension to its departure from the bloc – scheduled in eight days.
Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels at a summit where she is trying to persuade leaders of the EU’s 27 other member nations to approve a delay until June 30.
Unanimous approval of the request is needed.
Ahead of the decision, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told her country’s Parliament that the EU was open to the idea of an extension, but only if May is able to get British lawmakers to accept an exit deal that May has already negotiated with the EU.
Britain’s Parliament has twice rejected that deal, and polls show the British public, not just lawmakers, remain deeply divided over leaving the EU, known as Brexit.
“There is no single will of the people over Brexit,” said Sara Hobolt, a professor of European politics at the London School of Economics. “The only thing people seem to agree on is that the government is doing a terrible job at handling it.”
May is expected to ask lawmakers to vote on her deal for a third time next week.
She said in a short statement addressed to the British public on Wednesday night that a delay to Brexit was a “matter of great personal regret.”
“Of this I am absolutely sure. You, the public, have had enough,” she said. “You just want us to get on with it and that is what I am determined to do.”
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However, May faces a separate British parliamentary hurdle before she can do that: House Speaker John Bercow has ruled her EU deal would have to have changed significantly in order to justify asking lawmakers to vote for it a third time.
Adding further pressure on May, the EU has said it is not willing to renegotiate that deal, which was the product of two years of back and forth discussions.
Both sides are trying to avoid a “no-deal” Brexit, the default legal position if no arrangement is reached before March 29. Under a “no-deal” Brexit, EU legislation Britain adopted over decades covering a range of issues from transportation policy to workers’ rights, from security to public health, would effectively evaporate overnight.
A petition calling on May to unilaterally cancel Brexit by revoking Article 50, the domestic legislation that underpins it, has received more than half a million signatures Thursday. The high volume crashed the Parliament’s website. It also means lawmakers are required to formally debate the measure, although it is not legally binding.
The outcome of Brexit negotiations and votes that take place over the next week could also determine whether May is ousted from power and if a general election called.
Anand Menon, a professor of politics at King’s College London, said if May is forced from office Britain “really would be in unstable, uncharted waters” in terms of next steps over Brexit, but also with respect to forming a viable new government.
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