London — Britain and the European Union braced Wednesday for a chaotic, cliff-edge Brexit after UK lawmakers rejected the divorce deal that the two sides had agreed upon. Britain’s Parliament was to hold votes later that aimed to rule out or postpone a disruptive no-deal departure for Britain from the bloc.
But top EU officials warned the prospect could not be eliminated unless the UK Parliament approved some type of exit deal.
“The risk of a no-deal has never been higher,” chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said.
“I urge you please not to underestimate the risk or its consequences,” he told European lawmakers in Strasbourg, France.
British lawmakers rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal for a second time on Tuesday, throwing it out by a 391-242 vote. With Brexit set for March 29, just 16 days away, Parliament will vote later Wednesday on whether to rule out leaving the EU on that date without a deal.
Both Britain and the EU have ramped up planning for a “no-deal” Brexit, which would rip up decades of rules for travel and trade between Britain and the EU. Economists say it could cause huge upheaval, with customs checks causing gridlock at UK ports, new tariffs triggering sudden price hikes and red tape for everyone from truckers to tourists.
On Wednesday, the UK government announced its plans for the Irish border after Brexit, saying it wouldn’t impose new checks, duties or controls on goods coming from EU member Ireland into Northern Ireland. It also said it wouldn’t slap tariffs on most goods coming into Britain from the EU — though there would be new levies on imports of some items including meat and cars.
The British government said 87 per cent of imports by value would be tariff-free, a “modest liberalisation” compared with current trade rules. A mixture of tariffs and quotas would apply to beef, lamb, pork, poultry and some dairy “to support farmers and producers who have historically been protected through high EU tariffs.”
The tariffs, intended to be temporary, wouldn’t apply to goods crossing from Ireland to Northern Ireland, raising fears the plan would spark a rise in smuggling across that border.
UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC the government was well prepared but “no-deal is going to be very disruptive for the economy.”
Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said the no-deal arrangements would be “a sledgehammer for our economy.”
A weakened May, her authority shredded by successive Brexit defeats in Parliament, said her Conservative lawmakers could vote Wednesday according to their conscience, rather than having to follow a party line.
If a no-deal Brexit is ruled out, Parliament will vote Thursday on whether to ask the EU to delay Britain’s departure.
“The government needs to seek an extension of [Brexit-triggering] Article 50 so that we can have a bit more time to sort things out because, to be honest, we are in such a mess,” opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper said.
The EU — openly exasperated by Britain’s continuing Brexit crisis — warned that Britain would need to present a strong reason for any extension.
The EU Parliament’s Brexit group was meeting Wednesday to assess the situation in Strasbourg, France, before a plenary debate on the impasse.
“I am against every extension — whether an extension of one day, one week, even 24 hours — if it’s not based on a clear opinion of the House of Commons for something,” said the European Parliament’s chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt. “Please make up your minds in London, because this uncertainty cannot continue.”
Barnier said “again the House of Commons says what it does not want. Now this impasse can only be solved in the UK”
EU Economic Commissioner Pierre Moscovici said Tuesday’s vote increased chances of a British departure that is “disorderly, brutal, like a cliff,” including sudden new customs rules and trade chaos that companies have warned about for months.
The European Parliament was poised to approve measures later Wednesday to deal with the immediate hardship of a “no-deal” Brexit. It was set to back emergency rules to ease the burdens on roads and airports if all trucks suddenly needed to be checked.
The UK Parliament has now twice rejected the withdrawal agreement that May spent the best part of two years negotiating with the EU, and the bloc insists there will be no more talks.
Moscovici said “the train has passed two times” and the EU will not renegotiate the deal before the scheduled Brexit date of March 29.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas issued a warning to British lawmakers.
“Whoever rejects the [Brexit] agreement plays with the welfare of their citizens and the economy in a reckless way,” he said.