By Jill Lawless and Raf Casert / Associated Press
LONDON — In a tentative first step toward ending months of political deadlock, British lawmakers voted Wednesday to block the country from leaving the European Union without a divorce agreement, triggering an attempt to delay that departure, currently due to take place March 29.
Parliament is scheduled to decide Thursday whether to put the brakes on Brexit, a vote set up after lawmakers dealt yet another defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May amid a crisis over Britain’s departure from the EU.
The lawmakers’ 321-278 vote has political but not legal force, and does not entirely rule out a chaotic no-deal departure for Britain. But it might ease jitters spreading across the EU after lawmakers resoundingly rejected May’s divorce deal Tuesday.
Exiting the EU without a deal could mean major disruptions for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining EU countries.
Speaking with a raspy voice after weeks of relentless pressure, May hinted that she plans to make a third attempt to get lawmakers to support her Brexit deal, which they have already rejected twice.
She said Parliament faced a “fundamental choice” — a “short, technical extension” if lawmakers approve a divorce deal with the EU in the next week, or a much longer delay to Brexit if they don’t.
The EU warned that voting against no-deal Brexit wasn’t enough to stop it. By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.
“There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal,” a European Commission official said. “The EU is prepared for both. To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal — you have to agree to a deal.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the unresolved situation.
Earlier, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that “the risk of a no-deal has never been higher.”
As Britain teeters ever closer to the edge of the Brexit cliff, lawmakers are trying to seize control from the divided and squabbling government, although it’s far from clear if they can agree on a way forward.
There are competing factions that support May’s deal, a “softer” deal that would keep close ties with the EU, a no-deal Brexit, or even a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Parliament likely will agree to delay Brexit, but it would need EU approval. The bloc — openly exasperated by Britain’s continuing Brexit crisis — warned that the U.K. would need to present a strong reason for any extension.
“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.”
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 bloc.
Economists say it could cause huge upheaval, with customs checks causing gridlock at U.K. ports, new tariffs triggering sudden price increases and red tape for everyone from truckers to tourists.