|There is growing speculation British Prime Minister Theresa May will ask for a Brexit delay but Brussels will want a very good reason go go along. (AFP/Niklas HALLE'N) |
On Tuesday, MPs rejected the Brexit withdrawal plan that Prime Minister Theresa May had agreed with EU negotiators - leaving Britain in limbo just 16 days before it is due to leave the bloc.
Delaying Britain's departure beyond Mar 29 seems increasingly inevitable if both sides want to avoid a chaotic "no-deal" Brexit, but Brussels insists a delay will not be granted if it simply prolongs uncertainty.
"Today we are in the hands of the British political system," European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told the European Parliament.
"They should tell us where they want to go from now. The solution will have to come from London."
Brussels has made clear it will not renegotiate the deal thrashed out with Britain over two years of tortuous talks and which has now been resoundingly rejected twice by lawmakers.
The latest crushing defeat, on Tuesday, came despite May securing further guarantees from the EU in last-ditch talks in Strasbourg.
British MPs will vote on Wednesday on whether to accept leaving the EU with no deal in place.
If they reject this option - as they are expected to do - they will vote on Thursday on whether to ask for Brexit day to be put back.
TELL US WHAT YOU WANT
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier echoed Timmermans' message, bluntly telling London it must decide what it wants from Brexit before Brussels would consider a delay.
"It is the responsibility of the United Kingdom to tell us what it wants in a future relationship, what is its choice, the clear line that must be its own," he told the European Parliament.
"That's the question that is open and to which we await a response, and it's the question that must be answered even before any decision on an extension.
"Why would we prolong the negotiation? To do what? Because the Article 50 negotiation is finished, we have a treaty, it's there," he added, referring to the withdrawal agreement.
Barnier's call means "the British need to change their Brexit model - either to a soft Brexit inspired by the Norwegian model or by cancelling Brexit," Eric Maurice, an analyst at the Robert Schuman Foundation, told AFP.
Norway is not an EU member but is part of the bloc's single market, respecting EU rules on free movement of people, goods and capital.
Choosing this model, or staying in the EU's customs union, would resolve the problem of the Irish border "backstop" which has blocked the withdrawal agreement in Westminster.
But these options are unacceptable to Brexit hardliners in May's Conservative party, whose support she needs to get any deal approved.
'PROLONGING THE AGONY'
The British have "never known how to choose" but that will have to change now, one puzzled European diplomatic source observed.
"Changing the form of Brexit would require an authority that May no longer has. Defining the future relationship might take new elections," Maurice said.
The prospect of a snap general election would give the EU a solid reason to agree a longer delay than the short extension mooted up to now, but would also risk "prolonging the agony," according to a diplomat.
A long delay "assumes a political choice by the British - a major change like new elections, a new referendum or the revocation of Article 50" the diplomat said, referring to the process of leaving the bloc.
By setting these conditions on any Brexit delay - which would need the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining EU members in any event - the bloc wants to show that it will not give London a blank cheque.
But another diplomat predicted that a "good reason for an extension will be found".
"At the end the question for the heads of state and government is ... do we want to push the UK over the cliff, do we want chaos on the island of Ireland and uncomfortable situations in France or Germany," the diplomat said.