By Alastair Macdonald and Elizabeth Piper
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May returned on Friday to her mammoth struggle of persuading a deeply divided parliament to back her Brexit deal after an EU summit granted her more time but little to help change minds in London.
After a bruising day in Brussels, May secured a two-week reprieve to try to get the deal she negotiated in November through parliament at a third attempt or face a potentially chaotic departure from the European Union as soon as April 12.
EU leaders were clear that it was now up to the British parliament to decide the fate of Brexit – to leave with a deal in a couple of months, depart without an agreement, come up with a new plan, or possibly remain in the bloc.
While the Brexit deadline may have moved from the originally planned March 29, however, parliament shows no sign of budging.
In fact, incensed by comments from May that pinned the blame for the Brexit chaos on them, many British lawmakers have now hardened their resistance to the deal she will bring back before them next week.
In an appeal to the very same lawmakers she criticized on Wednesday, May said in the early hours of Friday: “Last night I expressed my frustration. I know that MPs (members of parliament) are frustrated too. They have difficult jobs to do. I hope we can all agree, we are now at the moment of decision.”
She needs to change the minds of 75 more lawmakers to get her deal through after it was overwhelmingly rejected twice before.
While EU leaders were keen to heap pressure on the British parliament, some – with the notable exception of France -suggested Britain could still win more time to prepare for a no-deal Brexit if lawmakers fail to approve the divorce deal by April 12.
“HOPE DIES LAST”
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar summed up the mood in Brussels when he spoke of overwhelming fatigue with Brexit while also issuing a tongue-in-cheek reminder to Britain that EU and non-EU countries can get along fine.
“There is Brexit fatigue across the European Union, I think there’s Brexit fatigue in the UK as well – people really want certainty,” he told a news conference.
With Brussels keen to shift the onus of responsibility to London, European Council President Donald Tusk said: “The fate of Brexit is in the hands of our British friends. We are, as the EU, prepared for the worst but hope for the best. As you know, hope dies last.”
French President Emmanuel Macron took a potshot at Brexit supporters. “Brexiteer leaders told people leaving would be easy. Bravo.”
Leaders doubted whether May could get her deal through parliament, which like the country itself is deeply split over how, or even if, Britain should leave the EU after a 2016 referendum when 52 percent backed Brexit against 48 percent.
Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said he believed May had a 50:50 chance of getting the deal through.
Macron told the summit that before coming to Brussels he had thought May had a 10 percent chance of winning the vote. After listening to the prime minister, he said, he had cut his estimate to five percent.
Parliament will start next week with another vote on Brexit, which may open the way for lawmakers to be able to vote on alternative options for Britain’s departure.
Stepping up the pressure on May, the leader of the main opposition Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, said it was time for parliament to take over Brexit from May, and for lawmakers to make their own decisions about Britain’s future.
With parliament deadlocked so far, the lack of certainty is encouraging some Britons to try to influence politicians from the streets or over the Internet.
Hundreds of thousands are expected to march through central London on Saturday calling for a second Brexit referendum, while an online petition demanding May revoke the EU leave notice and stop Brexit altogether has got more than 3 million signatures.
Seven hours of summit brainstorming on Thursday kept a host of options open for the EU leaders, who say they regret Britain’s decision to leave but are eager to move on from what they increasingly see as a distraction.
A first-ever leaders’ dinner debate over the EU’s China policy at the summit got delayed until Friday because of Brexit.
Now a May 22 departure date will apply if parliament rallies behind the British prime minister next week. If it does not, Britain will have until April 12 to offer a new plan or decide to leave the European Union without a treaty.
In the case of a longer extension, the main idea is for one-year, EU officials said. That would give Britain time to hold an election, and possibly a second referendum if it chose to, and avoid an even longer delay that would complicate negotiations for a new long-term EU budget.
(Additional reporting by William James, Gabriela Baczynska, Robin Emmott, Philip Blenkinsop, Richard Lough, Francesco Guarascio, Andreas Rinke; writing by Elizabeth Piper and Alastair Macdonald, Editing by Jon Boyle and Gareth Jones)