Brexit ‘inferno’ lays bare a divided United Kingdom

By Guy Faulconbridge and Elizabeth Piper

LONDON (Reuters) – The fury of Britain’s Brexit “inferno” is so intense that it could encourage violence unless politicians tone down their rhetoric, the husband of a lawmaker murdered a week before the 2016 EU referendum said on Thursday.

Parliament reached boiling point on Wednesday when Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his opponents engaged in hours of vitriolic argument over Brexit, with lawmakers hurling allegations of betrayal and abuse of power across the chamber.

Jo Cox, a 41-year-old parliamentarian from the opposition Labour Party, was murdered on June 16, 2016 by Thomas Mair, a loner obsessed with Nazis and extreme right-wing ideology. She was the mother of two young children.

Cox’s husband Brendan said he was shocked by the inflammatory language on display and both sides should ponder the impact of the words they used.

When asked how his late wife might have responded, Cox said: “She would have tried to take a generosity of spirit to it and thought about how at this moment you can step back from this growing inferno of rhetoric.”

“To descend into this bear pit of polarization is dangerous for our country,” he told the BBC. “It creates an atmosphere where violence and attacks are more likely.”

Brexit has illustrated a United Kingdom divided about much more than the European Union and has fueled soul-searching about everything from secession and immigration to capitalism, empire and Britishness itself.

The rage and ferocity of the Brexit debate have shocked allies of a country that has prided itself as a confident – and mostly tolerant – pillar of Western economic and political stability.

Cox was clear that the language across the Brexit schism was troubling and that the United Kingdom needed to come together rather than tear itself apart.

Some on both sides of the debate are now using the politics of contrived outrage to argue their point. Johnson says parliament is betraying the will of the people over Brexit, while opponents cast him a dictator who has ridden roughshod over democracy to take the United Kingdom to the brink of ruin.

Parliamentary speaker John Bercow told lawmakers to stop treating each other as enemies, saying the atmosphere in the House of Commons was the worst he had known since he was elected 22 years ago.

“The culture was toxic,” Bercow said in parliament.

BREXIT SCHISM

Johnson returned to the chamber on Wednesday after the Supreme Court ruled that his decision to suspend parliament earlier this month was unlawful.

He goaded his opponents either to bring down the government or get out of the way to allow him to deliver Brexit. His opponents roared “resign” and some cast him as a cheating dictator who should stand aside after the court ruling.

Johnson provoked anger by repeatedly calling a law that forces him to ask the EU for a Brexit delay unless he can strike a deal as “the Surrender Bill”. Speaking to Conservative lawmakers on Thursday, he defended his use of the term and received support from the party.

Johnson told the 1922 Committee: “It IS a surrender act,” arguing that it hurt Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU. The prime minister added that he took threats to lawmakers very seriously.

But some were still furious over his response on Wednesday to a question about Jo Cox.

Labour’s Paula Sherriff told the House she had received death threats, some of which echoed the prime minister’s own rhetoric. Johnson replied: “I have never heard so much humbug in my life”, sparking uproar.

It was not just politicians who were angry. Johnson’s own sister Rachel described her brother’s words as a “particularly tasteless” way to refer to the memory of a murdered lawmaker.

“Words like collaborationist, traitor, betrayal, my brother using words like surrender, capitulation, as if the people who are standing in the way of the blessed will of the people as defined by 17.4 million votes in 2016 should be hung, drawn, quartered, tarred and feathered,” she told Sky News.

“I think that it highly reprehensible language to use.”

In the 2016 referendum, 17.4 million voters, or 52 percent, backed Brexit while 16.1 million, or 48 percent, voted to remain.

But after more than three years of crisis since then, it remains unclear how, when or even whether the country will leave the bloc it joined in 1973.

Nicholas Soames, grandson of Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill, said the atmosphere in the chamber was the most poisonous he could remember in 37 years in parliament. “I despair, to be frank,” Soames, 71, said.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; editing by Andrew MacAskill, Angus MacSwan and Giles Elgood)

UK PM May fights back tears as she is applauded out of parliament

British Prime Minister Theresa May takes questions in Parliament on her last day in office as Prime Minister in London, Britain July 24, 2019, in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS?

LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers gave outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May a standing ovation as they applauded her out of the House of Commons chamber after her final, at times emotional, appearance as leader on Wednesday.

May, 62, appeared to be fighting back tears as she left, stopping to shake hands with the speaker, John Bercow, on her way out. She will officially hand over to her successor Boris Johnson later on Wednesday.

“Later today I will return to the backbenches and it will be my first time in 21 years so it is going to be quite a change,” May told lawmakers as her final weekly question session in parliament came to a close.

Praising the link between lawmakers and the constituents they represent as “the bedrock of our parliamentary democracy”, May’s voice quivered as she finished: “That duty to serve my constituents will remain my greatest motivation.”

The hour-long session, which her husband Philip watched from the public gallery, saw lawmakers from across the political divide pay tribute to May’s public service and sense of duty, despite voicing their disagreement with many of her policies.

Television footage from a news helicopter over parliament showed parliamentary staff lined up in a courtyard, clapping and taking photos on their phones as she walked to her car to return to her Downing Street residence for the final time.

She is expected to make a short speech in Downing Street before going to see Queen Elizabeth to formally stand down and recommend Johnson be asked to form a government.

May took over as prime minister in the aftermath of the 2016 vote to leave the European Union and is standing down just over three years later having failed to deliver Brexit, her divorce deal with the bloc rejected three times by a deeply divided parliament.

(Reporting by Kylie MacLellan; editing by Stephen Addison)

Israel moves towards new vote as Netanyahu struggles to form government

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel moved closer towards a new election on Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government after last month’s national ballot remained deadlocked.

In a preliminary vote, parliament decided to dissolve itself. In order to disperse and set an election date, legislators would still have to hold a final vote, likely to take place on Wednesday.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, has until 2100 GMT on Wednesday to put a government together, after being delegated the task by President Reuven Rivlin following the April 9 poll.

In a televised address following the initial vote in parliament, Netanyahu pledged to continue pursuing coalition talks and said a new vote would be unnecessary and costly.

“A lot can be done in 48 hours,” he said. “The voters’ wishes can be respected, a strong right-wing government can be formed.”

In power for the past decade and facing potential corruption indictments, Netanyahu has struggled to seal an agreement with a clutch of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would ensure him a fifth term.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and is due to argue against the attorney-general’s intention to indict him on fraud and bribery charges at a pre-trial hearing in October.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on Netanyahu’s political woes in the face of political brinkmanship by the Israeli leader’s erstwhile ally, former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever,” Trump tweeted, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “A lot more to do!”

Although a second national election in the same year – unprecedented for Israel – would pose new political risks for Netanyahu, it would pre-empt Rivlin from assigning coalition-building to another legislator once Wednesday’s deadline expires.

CONSCRIPTION STALEMATE

Divisions between Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and United Torah Judaism over a military conscription bill governing exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students have plunged the coalition talks into stalemate.

The five parliamentary seats that Yisrael Beitenu won in the April ballot are crucial to Netanyahu gaining a parliamentary majority.

Likud took 35 of the legislature’s 120 seats, the same number as its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, but had the pledged support of a bigger right-wing bloc.

In a standoff with United Torah Judaism, Lieberman has demanded ultra-Orthodox must share other Israeli Jews’ burden of mandatory service. Ultra-Orthodox parties say seminary students should be largely exempt from conscription as they have been since Israel was founded in 1948.

But some commentators and members of Likud have suggested Lieberman’s real motive is to ultimately succeed Netanyahu and lead Israel’s right-wing, using the conscription bill and coalition stalemate to weaken him politically.

“Avigdor Lieberman’s only interest is to seize control of the national camp by toppling Netanyahu,” deputy foreign minister and Likud member Tzipi Hotovely told Army Radio.

Lieberman, who resigned his defense post in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet last November over policy towards the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, said he was acting only out of principle.

In his speech, Netanyahu welcomed the supportive remarks of Trump, with whom he has been in lock-step over policies towards the Palestinians and Israel’s Iranian foe.

“He (Trump) is right,” he said. “We have an infinite number of things to do, security challenges … economic challenges.”

But Netanyahu said he had failed “so far, including tonight” to persuade Lieberman “to avoid an election”.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

New Zealand votes to amend gun laws after Christchurch attack

Flowers and a New Zealand national flag are seen at a memorial as tributes to victims of the mosque attacks near Linwood mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, March 16, 2019. REUTERS/Edgar Su

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Lawmakers in New Zealand voted almost unanimously on Wednesday to change gun laws, less than a month after its worst peacetime mass shooting, in which 50 people were killed in attacks on two mosques in Christchurch.

Parliament passed the gun reform bill, the first substantial changes to New Zealand’s gun laws in decades, by 119 to 1. It must now receive royal assent from the governor general to become law.

“There have been very few occasions when I have seen parliament come together in this way, and I can’t imagine circumstances when it is more necessary,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in presenting the legislation.

Ardern banned the sale of all military style semi-automatics (MSSA) and assault rifles just six days after the March 15 shooting, and announced plans to tighten gun laws.

A lone gunman used semi-automatic guns in the Christchurch mosque attacks, killing 50 people as they attended Friday prayers.

Authorities have charged Australian Brenton Tarrant, 28, a suspected white supremacist, with 50 counts of murder following the attacks.

The new curbs bar the circulation and use of most semi-automatic firearms, parts that convert firearms into semi-automatic firearms, magazines over a certain capacity, and some shotguns.

Existing gun laws had provided for a standard A-category gun license covering semi-automatics limited to seven shots.

The bill grants an amnesty until Sept. 30 for people to surrender prohibited items. More than 300 weapons had already been handed in, police minister Stuart Nash told parliament.

The government has begun work on a second arms amendment bill it hopes to introduce in June, he said, adding that the measure would tackle issues regarding a gun registry, among others.

The government has faced criticism from some quarters for rushing through the bill. Wednesday’s dissenting vote came from David Seymour, leader of the small free-market ACT Party, who questioned why the measure was being rushed through.

Ardern said majority lawmakers believe such guns had no place in New Zealand.

“We are ultimately here because 50 people died and they do not have a voice,” she added. “We, in this house, are their voice and today we have used that voice wisely.”

Since last month’s shooting, New Zealand has tightened security and canceled several events in Auckland, its largest city, intended to commemorate ANZAC Day on April 25.

“There is no information about a specific threat to ANZAC events,” police official Karyn Malthus, said in a statement. “However it’s important that the public be safe, and feel safe, at events in the current environment.”

In 1996, neighboring Australia banned semi-automatic weapons and launched a gun buyback after the Port Arthur massacre that killed 35 people.

(Reporting by Praveen Menon; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Israel’s election explained: first the vote, then the kingmaking

A man holds a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he stands behind a stall at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote in a parliamentary election on Tuesday, choosing among party lists of candidates to serve in the 120-seat Knesset.

No party has won a majority of seats since Israel’s first election in 1949. Following are questions and answers about the vote and what sort of coalition negotiations could emerge:

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER POLLS CLOSE?

Israel’s major television stations and news websites issue exit polls when voting ends at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, estimating how many parliamentary seats each party has won, and then the coalition calculations begin.

WHO’S AHEAD IN OPINION POLLS?

Final polls in the campaign, on Friday, showed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fallen behind his main challenger, centrist Benny Gantz, but still has an easier path to form a government that would keep him in power for a record fifth term.

HOW DOES COALITION-BUILDING WORK?

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, consults with the leaders of every party represented in parliament as to their preference for prime minister, and then chooses the legislator who he believes has the best chance of putting together a coalition. The nominee, who does not necessarily have to be the head of the party that won the most votes, has up to 42 days to form a government before the president asks another politician to try.

WHAT SORT OF COALITION COULD BE FORMED?

Netanyahu will likely seek a coalition, similar to his current government, with ultranationalist and Jewish Orthodox parties. Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, will likely win the support of center-left and left-wing parties, but polls predict he will fall short of a governing majority in parliament.

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

WHAT ARE THE UNEXPECTED FACTORS TO WATCH?

A far-right politician, Moshe Feiglin, has been drawing unexpectedly strong support, opinion polls show, with a libertarian platform advocating the legalization of marijuana, free-market policies and annexation of the occupied West Bank. He could be a kingmaker.

In Israeli politics, a “unity government” can never be ruled out if the path to a right- or center-left-led coalition proves difficult – even though Gantz has pledged not to serve with Netanyahu, citing corruption allegations against the Likud party leader, who has denied those accusations.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

With British government, parliament and people divided, a disorderly Brexit looms

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a Serious Youth Violence Summit in Downing Street, London, Britain April 1, 2019. Adrian Dennis/Pool via REUTERS

By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and Gabriela Baczynska

LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union said on Tuesday that Britain could be heading for a potentially disorderly exit in just 10 days time as Prime Minister Theresa May met with ministers to thrash out ways to break the Brexit deadlock.

Nearly three years since the United Kingdom voted to leave the EU in a shock referendum result, May’s exit strategy is up in the air as her government and party are still squabbling over how, when or even if Brexit should happen.

May’s divorce deal has been defeated three times by the lower house of the British parliament, which failed on Monday to find a majority of its own for any alternatives. She is expected to try to put her deal to a fourth vote this week.

The deadlock has already delayed Brexit for at least two weeks beyond the planned departure date to 2200 GMT on April 12.

“Over the last days a no-deal scenario has become more likely, but we can still hope to avoid it,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said in Brussels.

May chaired several hours of cabinet meetings in Downing Street in a bid to find a way out of the crisis. It was unclear what, if anything, had been agreed.

European Central Bank policymaker Francois Villeroy de Galhau said markets needed to price in the growing risk of a no-deal.

The cacophony of warnings over a disorderly Brexit ratchet up the pressure on British lawmakers as some try to grab control of parliament to prevent a no-deal.

If May cannot get her deal ratified by parliament then she has a choice between leaving without a deal, trying to trigger an election, or asking the EU for a long delay to negotiate a Brexit agreement with a much closer relationship with the bloc.

UP TO BRITAIN

At least half of her Conservative Party wants to leave the EU without a deal, though some lawmakers and ministers are telling her she must keep the United Kingdom firmly within the bloc’s economic orbit.

The defeat of May’s deal after pledging to quit if it was passed has left the weakest British leader in a generation facing a spiraling crisis.

“I hope that we can still find a solution. The British parliament has said itself that it doesn’t want a disorderly Brexit,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said.

May will set out next steps ahead of an emergency EU summit on April 10, her spokesman said. May remained opposed to another referendum, he added.

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said that if nearly three years after the referendum the United Kingdom was incapable of coming up with a solution, “it would have effectively chosen a no-deal exit on its own”.

Speaking at the Elysee palace alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Macron said it was for Britain to decide whether the plan involved new elections, a referendum or a customs union.

“It’s up to London to say it, and to say it now,” he said.

With the British electorate, its two major parties and the cabinet are all divided over Brexit, May risks ripping her party apart whichever way she tilts.

BREXIT CHAOS?

Such is the volatility of Brexit news from London that some traders have stepped away from sterling – which has seesawed on Brexit news since the 2016 referendum.

Sterling fell toward $1.30. The EU said a no-deal would disrupt financial markets and have an impact on liquidity.

Auto-maker Ford also sounded the alarm bells, saying it would have to consider what actions to take to protect its business in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

No-deal means there would be no transition so the exit would be abrupt. Britain is a member of the WTO so tariffs and other terms governing its trade with the EU would be set under WTO rules.

A group of lawmakers said on Tuesday they would try to pass a law which would force May to seek a delay Brexit and thus prevent a no-deal exit on April 12.

For now, May’s deal is back in focus, though she must find a way to get around a ban on repeatedly bringing the same matter to a vote in parliament.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Jan Strupczewski in Brussels, Andreas Rinke and Michelle Martin in Berlin, William James and Ritvik Carvalho in London and Tom Miles in Geneva, Richard Lough, Michel Rose and John Irish in Paris; editing by Michael Holden and Angus MacSwan)

Britain’s May says she will quit if her Brexit deal passes

By Guy Faulconbridge, Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Wednesday she would quit if her twice-defeated EU divorce deal passes at the third attempt, making a last-ditch bid to persuade rebels in her Conservative party to back her.

May told a meeting of Conservative lawmakers she would stand down if her divorce plan finally got through a bitterly-divided parliament, to ensure a smooth path for a new leader to begin the next step of negotiating the future relationship with the European Union.

“I have heard very clearly the mood of the parliamentary party,” May said. “I know there is a desire for a new approach – and new leadership – in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations – and I won’t stand in the way of that.”

May’s announcement is the latest dramatic turn in the United Kingdom’s three-year Brexit crisis, but it is still remains uncertain how, when or even if it will leave the European Union.

Many of the Conservative rebels who want a cleaner break from the EU than May’s deal would deliver had made it clear that they would only consider supporting her agreement if she gave a firm commitment and date for her resignation.

May, a vicar’s daughter, had already promised to step down before the next election, due in 2022. By agreeing to go sooner, she increases the chances of her EU deal passing before the new April 12 deadline.

“I am prepared to leave this job earlier than I intended in order to do what is right for our country and our party,” May told the party meeting, according to extracts released by her office.

“I ask everyone in this room to back the deal so we can complete our historic duty – to deliver on the decision of the British people and leave the European Union with a smooth and orderly exit.”

The government is now expected to bring the deal back to parliament for a third vote on Friday.

“It was inevitable and I just feel she’s made the right decision. She has actually read the mood of the party, which was a surprise,” said Conservative lawmaker Pauline Latham.

May’s deal means Britain will leave the EU single market and customs union as well as EU political bodies.

But it requires some EU rules to apply unless ways can be found in the future to ensure no border is rebuilt between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Many Conservative rebels have objected to this so-called Irish backstop, saying it risks binding Britain to the EU for years. But given the choice between the backstop and no Brexit at all, more should come round.

Some of the party’s most influential dissenters had already indicated they would back her deal, agreed after two years of talks with the EU, saying it was the least worst option.

May’s deal was defeated in parliament by 149 votes on March 12 and by 230 votes on Jan. 15.

While May was telling her lawmakers of her intention to quit in a parliament committee room, MPs in the main chamber debated eight Brexit options ranging from leaving abruptly with no deal to revoking the divorce papers or holding a new referendum.

Several options on the table would see much closer alignments with the EU than May has been willing to consider, including staying in the common market or a customs union. They will vote at 1900 GMT on a ballot paper for as many proposals as they wish. Results will be announced after 2100 GMT.

The United Kingdom was originally due to leave the EU on March 29 but last week the EU granted an extension to the divorce date until April 12.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan, Andrew MacAskill, Paul Sandle, Kate Holton, William Schomberg, Elisabeth O’Leary, and James Davey; Editing by Kevin Liffey)

Returning to London, Britain’s May faces mammoth task to change minds on Brexit

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for a news briefing after meeting with EU leaders in Brussels, Belgium May 22, 2019. REUTERS/Toby Melville

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.

NEW VOTES

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)

Brexit delayed? PM May requests three-month extension, EU pushes back

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May answers questions in the Parliament in London, Britain, March 20, 2019 in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May asked for a three-month delay to Brexit on Wednesday to buy time to get her twice-rejected departure deal though parliament, but the request faced immediate resistance from the European Commission.

May’s initiative came just nine days before Britain is formally due to leave the European Union and marked the latest twist in more than two years of negotiations that have left British politics in chaos and the prime minister’s authority in tatters.

After the defeats in parliament opened up the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal and a smooth transition, May said she remained committed to leaving “in an orderly manner” and wanted to postpone Brexit until June 30.

Her announcement prompted uproar in parliament, where the opposition Labour Party accused her of “blackmail, bullying and bribery” in her attempts to push her deal through, and one prominent pro-Brexit supporter in her own Conservative Party said seeking a delay was “betraying the British people”.

Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU by 52 to 48 percent, but the decision has split the country, opening up divisive debates over the future of the economy, the nation’s place in the world and the nature of Britishness itself.

Some European capitals have welcomed May’s extension plan, with Germany saying a disorderly British departure would be in nobody’s interest.

But a European Commission document seen by Reuters said the delay should either be several weeks shorter, to avoid a clash with European elections in May, or extend at least until the end of the year, which would oblige Britain to take part in the elections.

The pound fell sharply as May requested her extension. [GBP=D3]

BREXIT CRISIS

Nearly three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, British politicians are still arguing over how, when or even if the world’s fifth largest economy should leave the bloc it first joined in 1973.

When May set the March 29 exit date two years ago by serving the formal Article 50 divorce papers, she declared there would be “no turning back” but parliament’s refusal to ratify the withdrawal deal she agreed with the EU has thrust her government into crisis.

On Wednesday, May wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk to ask for a delay.

“As prime minister I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than the 30th of June,” May told a rowdy session of parliament.

“I have therefore this morning written to President Tusk, the president of the European Council, informing him that the UK seeks an extension to the Article 50 period until the 30th June,” she said.

She said she planned to ask parliament to vote a third time on her departure deal, which lawmakers have voted down twice. She did not say when the vote would happen.

But May did say delaying Brexit did not rule out the possibility that Britain could leave without a deal.

The Labour Party said by choosing a short delay May was forcing British lawmakers to decide between accepting a deal they have already rejected or leaving without a deal.

Many pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative Party are opposed to a longer delay because they fear it could mean Brexit might never happen. They argue Britain can do well outside the European Union even though an abrupt departure would cause short-term pain.

EU PUSHES BACK

“Any extension offered to the United Kingdom should either last until 23 May 2019 or should be significantly longer and require European elections,” the EU document said.

“This is the only way of protecting the functioning of the EU institutions and their ability to take decisions.”

May said it was not in Britain’s interests to take part in European elections.

Britain must decide by April 11 if it will participate in the May 23 European election, creating an effective deadline for parliament to pass May’s deal for an orderly Brexit.

The document also said the EU should offer Britain just one extension as multiple delays would leave the bloc in limbo.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had warned May against requesting a Brexit delay beyond the European elections, unless Britain takes part, an EU spokeswoman said.

While the United Kingdom remains divided over Brexit, most agree it will shape the economic future of generations to come and, if it goes badly, could undermine the West and threaten London’s position as the dominant global financial capital.

The loss of Britain for the EU is the biggest blow yet to more than 60 years of effort to forge European unity after two world wars, though the 27 other members of the bloc have shown surprising unity during the tortuous negotiations.

EU leaders are expected to decide on May’s request for a Brexit delay at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. But some diplomats said the final decision could be pushed into next week.

(Additional reporting by by Kate Holton and Alistair Smout in London and Alastair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood; Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Brexit: Where will the UK end up: fudge, no-deal exit or halting Brexit?

FILE PHOTO: An EU flag flutters next to the statue of Winston Churchill outside the Houses of Parliament, ahead of a vote on Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, in London, Britain January 15, 2019. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne

By Guy Faulconbridge and Andrew MacAskill

LONDON (Reuters) – With just 10 weeks until the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union, it is unclear how or even whether the divorce will take place.

The crushing defeat of Prime Minister Theresa May’s deal means she must now work with other parties in parliament on a new variant if she is to avoid a no-deal Brexit or the other option, a referendum on membership.

As the clock ticks down to 2300 GMT on March 29, the time and date set in law for Brexit, May has three main options: a compromise deal, a no-deal Brexit or halting Brexit altogether.

FUDGED DEAL

After her defeat, May pledged to speak to senior to parliamentarians to find a compromise, and financial markets are betting that lawmakers will cobble together a last-minute deal.

The opposition Labour Party’s finance policy spokesman, John McDonnell, said Labour would support May if she agreed to stay in a permanent customs union with the EU, a close relationship with its single market and greater protections for workers and consumers.

With May’s Conservatives deeply split, the opposition party holds great influence over the eventual outcome of Brexit. It is difficult to see how any Brexit plan can pass the House of Commons without the support of some of Labour’s 256 lawmakers.

But if May moves closer to Labour’s position, she risks losing the support of dozens of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers as well as the small Northern Irish party which props up her minority government.

If May is unable to forge a compromise deal, she will have to chose between calling a national election, delaying Brexit or going for a no-deal exit.

Many Conservative lawmakers would oppose fighting a national election at such a crucial juncture, especially after she lost the party its majority in a snap poll in 2017. May herself said on Wednesday an election would be “the worst thing we could do”.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier indicated that one way forward would be for Britain to accept closer alignment with EU regulations. EU officials say London could, for example, abandon its plan to leave the EU customs union and single market, but that is unlikely to win backing among many Conservatives.

NO-DEAL BREXIT

Despite strong opposition among a majority of British lawmakers and many businesses to leaving the EU without a deal, this remains the default option unless parliament can agree on a Brexit plan.

“It is not enough to just not like May’s deal – to not have a no-deal there has to be something to replace it with, otherwise we leave without a deal,” said one senior British lawmaker.

No-deal means there would be no transition so the exit would be abrupt, the nightmare scenario for international businesses and the dream of hard Brexiteers who want a decisive split.

Britain is a member of the World Trade Organization so tariffs and other terms governing its trade with the EU would be set under WTO rules.

Business leaders are triggering contingency plans to cope with additional checks on the post-Brexit UK-EU border they fear will clog ports, silt up the arteries of trade and dislocate supply chains in Europe and beyond.

Brexit supporters say there would be short-term disruption but in the long-term the UK would thrive if cut free from what they cast as a doomed experiment in German-dominated unity that is falling behind China and the United States.

NO BREXIT

Since the 2016 referendum, opponents of Brexit have sought another vote they hope would overturn the result, but May has repeatedly ruled this out, saying it would undermine faith in democracy among the 17.4 million who voted in 2016 to leave.

A new referendum can only be called if it is approved by parliament and there is currently no majority in favor of one.

The opposition Labour Party wants to push for an election and only if that is rejected will it consider another referendum. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a veteran euroskeptic who has also spoken out in the past against a second referendum.

However, a prominent pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, Dominic Grieve, on Wednesday submitted legislation making provisions for a second Brexit referendum.

If parliament agreed to a second referendum, Britain would have to ask for an extension to its timetable for leaving the EU to allow enough time for a campaign, probably by withdrawing its Article 50 formal departure notification.

The Electoral Commission would have to agree what question, or questions, would be asked of the public.

At the highest levels of government, there are worries that a second referendum would exacerbate the deep divisions exposed by the 2016 referendum, alienate millions of pro-Brexit voters and stoke support for the far-right. If Britons voted to remain, Brexit supporters might then demand a third and decisive vote.

“I became prime minister immediately after that (2016) referendum,” May said minutes after her Brexit deal was rejected on Tuesday. ”I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Gareth Jones)