LONDON — Parliament on Wednesday voted, twice, that Britain should not leave the European Union without a proper withdrawal agreement, signaling that lawmakers will also ask European leaders for permission to delay Brexit.
The no-deal votes were in many ways symbolic — taking the temperature of Parliament, rather than setting concrete policy. The wishes expressed by lawmakers do not tie the hands of the British government, nor do they commit the E.U. to any action.
Prime Minister Theresa May conceded there was a “clear majority” against a no-deal Brexit, but she warned lawmakers that the “legal default” was that Britain would still leave without a deal on March 29 unless another agreement is reached.
May said her government could ask the E.U. for a short extension to implement a deal if it passed by next week. If no deal is passed, May said she would be forced to seek a much longer delay.
The prime minister was, in essence, alerting, even threatening, lawmakers that if they do not agree to some kind of Brexit deal fast — namely hers, which has been rejected twice, or some other compromise still to be crafted — then Brexit will drift into the far future.
May said: “If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short limited technical extension . . . to provide time to pass the necessary legislation and ratify the agreement we have reached with the E.U. But let me be clear, such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if we have a deal in place.”
She continued that if the British Parliament “is not willing to support a deal in the coming days, and as it is not willing to support leaving without a deal on 29 March, then it is suggesting that there will need to be a much longer extension.”
A delay of any length would need approval by leaders of the other 27 E.U. member states, who have repeatedly said they want a clear plan of action from Britain.
“It is a signal of rationality that has just come from London,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas tweeted. “But now is the time for the British to say what exactly they want to bring the Brexit deal to a successful conclusion. Because time is running out.”
A longer delay would require Britain to participate in European Parliament elections in May. “I do not think that would be the right outcome,” May said. “But the House needs to face up to the consequences of the decisions it has taken.”
“If Parliament votes repeatedly to say ‘the moon is made of cheese,’ it doesn’t mean the moon is made of cheese,” said Rob Ford, a professor of politics at the University of Manchester. “Parliament can say, repeatedly, that they don’t want no-deal, but the legal reality is that no-deal will happen unless they vote for something else to happen.”
Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, warned Parliament that an extension is not a gift. “And it is not clear what price the E.U. might extract for an extension,” he said.
European leaders have grown anxious that May is losing her authority and her way, fighting against a raucous, divided Parliament and increasingly assertive Conservative Party rebels who want to leave the European Union with no deal.
The chief E.U. Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, asked aloud why there should be any further discussion with Britain or an extension of the departure date. He said that nearly three years of talks had reached their end.
“Why would we extend these discussions?” he asked the European Parliament. The negotiations, he said, are “done and dusted. We have the withdrawal agreement. It’s there.”
Barnier warned British lawmakers that they were bringing their state to the brink, whether they liked it or not. “We are at a critical point. The risk of a no-deal has never been higher,” he said. “I urge you, please, not to underestimate that risk or its consequences.”
Many hardcore Brexiteers, while a minority of the overall Parliament, embrace the idea of “no-deal” Brexit.
“I hope that Parliament will vote not to take no-deal off the table,” Conservative lawmaker Boris Johnson told the BBC before the vote.
Johnson, one of the favorites to replace May, said: “It’s crazy to disable yourself as you go into a negotiation. . . . why would we shoot ourselves in the foot like that?”
May clearly hopes to put pressure on those Brexiteers who previously voted against her deal but who shudder at the thought of a long delay — or possibly losing Brexit altogether.
Still, some hard-liners said they would press on voting against May’s plan.
Steve Baker, the deputy chairman of the influential European Research Group, said that he would “keep voting this down however many times it is brought back.”
If all hope for a deal crumbles, May could resign, or she could pivot and call for a snap election.
Or Parliament could demand another Brexit referendum.
After warning the House about the perils of no-deal, Exchequer Phillip Hammond said May’s government and lawmakers should “start to map out a way forward towards building a consensus across this house for a deal we can collectively support to exit the E.U. in an orderly way” — suggesting moves toward a softer Brexit.
While the chaos in London rattled other European capitals, there was also some satisfaction that the British Parliament appeared to fear a no-deal Brexit as much as Europe does and might favor a softer or more gradual departure.
“An extension is better than no deal,” said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking in Washington a day ahead of planned meetings with President Trump and Vice President Pence. If Britain decided to reconsider its “red lines,” Varadkar added, they’d receive a “very generous, very warm and very open response” from E.U. member states.
In Brussels, E.U. ambassadors gathered to plot their next moves. Most countries appeared willing to accept some sort of delay. But there were disagreements about what Britain would have to promise in order to receive an extension.
May’s domestic brinkmanship gives little time for E.U. leaders to lay the diplomatic groundwork for their response ahead of a two-day summit that begins March 21. Some groused that proposals that could set off E.U.-wide earthquakes typically get aired at least a few days in advance. And although most European leaders would welcome a Brexit reversal, the necessary consensus for a long delay is less clear.
Some E.U. policymakers watched with amazement at Wednesday’s maneuvers in the House of Commons, noting the energy being expended on the “Malthouse Compromise” — a proposal the E.U. sees as the British attempting to preserve the divorce deal while stripping out the parts that would guarantee an open Irish border. It was roundly defeated.
Brexiteers have been accused of chasing unicorns, conjuring up magical solutions to complex situations like the Irish border problem.
That may have been what the European Union Council President Donald Tusk — known for setting off social media — had in mind when he posted a child’s unicorn drawing on his Instagram account.
Quentin Aries in Brussels and Adam Taylor in Washington contributed to this report.