The UK would have to hold a referendum, general election, or some kind of other “political process” if it wants to delay Brexit again, the EU’s chief negotiator has said.
Speaking in Brussels the morning after MPs yet again rejected a slate of compromise Brexit options Michel Barnier said a no-deal “becomes day after day more likely”.
Mr Barnier confirmed that the EU would accommodate any move by MPs to try and soften Brexit, stating that deals like the so-called “Norway option” or a customs union had always been on the table.
The Commons narrowly rejected a customs union by just three votes on Monday evening, and Norway-style single market membership by 21 votes. A plan for a final say referendum was rejected by another narrow 12 vote margin.
But if the UK does not pass any Brexit option by 12 April it would need to revoke Article 50 or get approval from an extension for the EU to avoid crashing out with a no-deal.
“If the UK Parliament does not vote in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement in the coming days only two options would remain,” Mr Barnier told an audience at a think-tank.
“Leaving without an agreement or requesting a longer extension of the Article 50 period.”
Some Brexiteer Tory MPs actively want a no-deal Brexit, despite the near certainty of serious economic damage to the UK. A maximum of 37 backed any of the soft Brexit options in the Commons last night, with hundreds voting against them. Last week 157 Tory MPs explicitly voted for a no-deal motion.
But Mr Barnier poured cold water on Brexiteer assumptions about a no-deal and said the EU would require the UK to ratify Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement before it would begin trade negotiations with a Britain that had crashed out.
He said he was sure that in the event of a no-deal “a few months after I’m sure UK will ask EU to begin negotiations” on trade but that “in that case the withdrawal agreement we put on the table at the beginning of this negotiation will be still here”. The negotiator said the UK would still have to settle the issues of citizens rights, Ireland, and the divorce bill included in the controversial treaty.
On Sunday The Independent reported that EU officials were behind the scenes saying that another extension would only be possible with a general election, second referendum, or compromise political process to find a majority for Theresa May’s deal. Mr Barnier confirmed the story on Tuesday morning.
He added: “The UK may ask for another extension. Such an extension would carry significant risks for the EU. Therefore a strong justification would be needed.”
“During any long extension there will be no renegotiation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, no, never,” Mr Barnier confirmed.
On whether the EU would accept the various soft Brexit options being considered by the Commons, he said: “We have always said that we can accept a customs union, or relationship along the style of the Norway model.
“In fact, however, the Political Declaration today can accommodate all of these options already. It leaves the door open for a variety of outcomes. But if the UK so wishes we are ready to rework the Political Declaration.”
In a statement issued after House of Commons votes last night European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt warned that a hard Brexit was becoming “nearly inevitable”. He added: “On Wednesday, the UK has a last chance to break the deadlock or face the abyss.”
EU leaders will gather for a summit in Brussels on 10 April next Wednesday, 48 hours before the UK is due to crash out of the EU. They will decide a way forward – including whether to grant the UK a long extension, if one is requested.
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