By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — UK Prime Minister Theresa May warned lawmakers on Friday (8 March) that rejecting her Brexit deal next week would plunge the UK into crisis and could lead to it never actually leaving the EU.
Speaking during a visit to Grimsby, a fishing port town in north-east England which voted by a 70-30% margin in 2016 to leave the EU, the prime minister pleaded with MPs to back her Brexit deal.
Most Britons just wanted MPs to “get it done”, she said.
“Reject it and no one knows what will happen. We may not leave the EU for many months. We may leave without the protections that the deal provides. We may never leave at all. The only certainty would be ongoing uncertainty,” said May.
But May warned MPs not to block Brexit, which she said would cause “profound damage” to public faith in democracy.
The House of Commons will vote next Tuesday on whether to accept the Withdrawal Agreement and MPs are likely to again vote against the deal unless the May government is able to secure last-minute concessions on the Irish backstop.
If MPs reject the deal, they would then have a chance to vote for a ‘no deal’ Brexit on Wednesday or for an extension to the Article 50 talks that would delay Brexit beyond the scheduled 29 March.
Although May’s officials have indicated that any extension would be no longer than three months, some on the UK side fear that EU leaders would demand a longer extension or refuse to agree to a three month period without a change in tack from UK negotiators.
The UK is still seeking ‘legally binding’ assurances that the Irish backstop will not be ‘indefinite’ and potentially leave the UK trapped in a permanent customs union with the EU without an agreement on future relations. The backstop is meant to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
However, talks between UK ministers and officials and Michel Barnier’s Brexit taskforce aimed at breaking the impasse failed to make progress this week.
May defended the backstop, which she described as an “insurance policy”.
“Like any insurance policy, no side ever wants to use it. It is part of the deal that the backstop cannot be permanent,” she said.
Other UK ministers have already sought to pin the blame on EU negotiators for the potential collapse of the deal.
On Friday morning, May’s Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned that relations between the UK and EU would be “poisoned for many years to come” if the EU refuses to grant any concessions to the backstop.
For their part, EU officials continue to complain that the UK government has not offered any clear alternative to the backstop.
Meanwhile, the UK government has conceded that its own legal framework will not be ready for Brexit day on 29 March.
Hundreds of pieces of secondary law have been tabled since the start of 2019, but many ‘non-urgent’ items have been “de-prioritised”, a spokesperson for May conceded on Friday.
“We are on track to deliver the Statutory Instruments (SIs) we need for exit day and we have already laid over 80% of these,” said the spokesperson.