LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday spelled out a “Plan B” for Brexit that appeared very much like a warmed-over version of her Plan A, which suffered a crushing defeat in Parliament last week.
May was forced to return to Westminister by a newly assertive Parliament that has been trying to exert more control over what withdrawal from the European Union looks like. But while May said she would “ensure that members have the chance to make their views known,” she has not altered her approach in response to many of the views that have already been expressed.
May refused to rule out a no-deal Brexit — the possibility that Britain could “crash out” of the European Union without a deal March 29, which the government warns could create economic hardship, shortages in medicine and traffic jams at the ports.
May reiterated her opposition to delaying Brexit beyond the March 29 deadline, saying that an extension to allow more parliamentary debate would be “simply deferring the point of decision” — and probably would not be agreed to by the other 27 members of the European Union.
She also repeated arguments against a second referendum — another “people’s vote” on Brexit. May said that the people already voted for Brexit and that the job of her government and Parliament is to deliver it. A second referendum, she warned, “could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.”
May said she thought progress was possible on the most contentious element of the withdrawal deal — the “Irish backstop,” an insurance policy meant to prevent the reemergence of a hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit. An open border was a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
May said she would consult with lawmakers “to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House.”
“And I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the E.U.,” she said.
But how much room to maneuver is there on the E.U. side of the table?
Although there is some openness to delaying Brexit by a few months, European leaders have repeatedly said the deal May presented to Parliament last week, painfully negotiated over several months, was the best they could offer. And they have been reluctant to resume any discussions until Britain can present a more united front.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel over the weekend put some of the onus back on the European Union. “We have a responsibility to shape a divorce process so that people don’t shake their heads at us in 50 years’ time and say, why weren’t they in a position to make a compromise?” she said.
Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz on Monday floated the idea of limiting the Irish backstop to five years.
“I don’t know if it’s feasible, if Ireland is ready to put forward such a proposal, but I have an impression that it might unblock the negotiations,” he told the BBC.
Speaking in Brussels, however, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney dismissed the idea.
“He mentioned that issue in Dublin in December when he visited,” Coveney told reporters. “I made it very clear that putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it’s not a backstop at all. I don’t think that reflects E.U. thinking in relation to the withdrawal agreement.”
May didn’t mention any specific limit on the backstop in Parliament on Monday.
In fact, the biggest news in her remarks was the announcement that the 3 million E.U. citizens living in Britain would not need to pay a planned 65 pound ($84) fee to apply for residency status after Brexit.
Lawmakers complained that she was bringing nothing new. Several said May seemed out of ideas — and appeared more defeated than defiant.
“It’s like last week’s vote never happened. Plan B is Plan A,” tweeted Sarah Wollaston, a Tory lawmaker who supports a second referendum.
“The government still appears not to have come to terms with the scale of the defeat in the House of Commons last week,” said Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party. “The prime minister seems to be going through motions of accepting the result but in reality is in deep denial.”
“It really does feel a bit like ‘Groundhog Day,’ ” Corbyn said.
Going forward, he said, Parliament will have more of a say over how Brexit unfolds.
“Today heralds the start of a democratic process where this House will debate amendments that will determine how we navigate Brexit,” the Labour leader said.
Aided by the flamboyant speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, backbenchers and opposition members of Parliament have been successful in passing arcane procedural amendments that may give them more say — and more meaningful votes — on the ultimate Brexit deal.
More amendments may be forthcoming — which could allow lawmakers to insist that the “no deal” option be removed, that a second referendum be held or that the Irish border backstop be time-limited. One possible amendment envisions Parliament taking unprecedented control of the withdrawal agreement.
Corbyn has refused to take part in cross-party talks unless May removes the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.
But rather than woo opposition lawmakers and risk splitting her own Conservative Party, May seems to have calculated that it’s better to try to win over the rebels in her party — more than a third of Tories voted against Plan A — and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland that props up her minority government.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters in Brussels that E.U. ministers were keen to get a sense of direction from London. “We know what London doesn’t want. Now we must at last find out what they want,” he said.
He also stressed it was important that there wasn’t a hard border in Ireland, while making reference to a bomb that exploded Saturday night in the center of Londonderry, Northern Ireland.
“Europe is a peace project, and Europe cannot do anything which leads to conflicts breaking out again in a part of Europe where they have long since been laid to rest,” he said. “It’s a very sensitive issue, and therefore it’s an issue which in the discussions to come I cannot imagine there will be much change.”