UK Parliament acts to avert 'absolute catastrophe' Brexit

Kim Hjelmgaard

LONDON – British lawmakers voted Wednesday to rule out leaving the European Union without a formal exit deal when Britain leaves the bloc in less than three weeks.

The outcome, though nonbinding, sets up a vote Thursday, when lawmakers could choose to delay Brexit. 

Britain's Parliament rejected Prime Minister Theresa May's withdrawal agreement with the EU for the second time in as many months late Tuesday in a move that increased political and business uncertainty over what happens next.

A "no deal" Brexit, according to analysts and political scientists, could lead to chaos at ports, grounded flights, traffic jams and food shortages. Buckingham Palace repurposed a Cold War-era emergency escape plan for Queen Elizabeth II in the event this default EU-divorce position causes social unrest or other disturbances. 

More: 'Bewildering, dire, disastrous': Queen has a Brexit escape plan

More: British lawmakers reject Theresa May's Brexit plan for second time

"I may not have my own voice, but I understand the voice of the country," May said in Parliament on Wednesday as she battled a sore throat. She insisted that Britain can leave the EU with a "good deal" but warned lawmakers they face "hard choices."

If Britain decides to delay Brexit, it would need to seek approval from an EU that has grown increasingly frustrated with Britain's inability to speak with a unified voice over the terms of its exit from the bloc. The EU demanded "credible justification" before it would grant any request to delay Brexit.

"I don’t see reason to give any extension if first of all we don’t know what the majority position is of the House of Commons," Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's chief Brexit official, said Wednesday. "We are waiting now for a proposal from London. It is now in London that they have to find a way out of this and break the deadlock."

Even if Brexit is delayed, Britain will depart the EU without a deal if one is not agreed upon during the delay because that is the default legal position.

Wednesday's vote does not change that. 

The British government sought to reassure industry leaders Wednesday by publishing details of its contingency plans under a "no deal" scenario. These include cutting tariffs on a range of agricultural imports from outside the EU and measures to avoid a "hard border" between Britain's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. 

Investors have been closely watching Brexit, which has caused volatility for the value of the British pound, although they appeared to shrug off the latest developments. Britain's benchmark FTSE 100 index traded flat Wednesday. 

Dominic Grieve, Britain's former attorney general and a supporter of staying in the EU from May's ruling Conservative Party, told BBC radio that crashing out of the bloc without a deal would be an "absolute catastrophe." Grieve, who has advocated for a second public vote on whether Britain should leave the EU, has warned that a "no deal" Brexit could force the nation to declare a "state of emergency."   

"Politicians have spectacularly failed," said Nigel Green, the chief executive of deVere Group, a London-based financial consultancy. "Allowing the public to vote and giving them a final say is quite simply the only credible solution now available." 

Michael Gove, Britain's environment secretary, told Parliament that tens of thousands of businesses were not prepared for a "no-deal exit." He stood in for May after she lost her voice in debates because of her sore throat. 

Parliament has twice rejected May's withdrawal agreement. She spent the best part of two years negotiating it with the EU, and the bloc insists there will be no more talks.

"The risk of a 'no-deal' has never been higher," the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said Wednesday. "I urge you please not to underestimate the risk or its consequences," he told European lawmakers. 

An anti-Brexit, left, and pro-Brexit supporter debate outside Parliament in London on March 12, 2019.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: UK Parliament acts to avert 'absolute catastrophe' Brexit