British opposition raises prospect of second Brexit referendum

Britain's main opposition have proposed that a second brexit referendum take place.
Britain's main opposition have proposed that a second brexit referendum take place.
Image: REUTERS/Russell Boyce

Britain's main opposition Labour Party has said it could support a second Brexit referendum as the European Union opened the door to postponing the country's exit from the bloc beyond the March 29 deadline.

Britain remains as divided as ever over Brexit, which a narrow majority of voters backed in a June 2016 referendum and speculation that London will ask for more time to negotiate its withdrawal has gathered steam in recent days.

British Prime Minister Theresa May suggested Sunday that parliament may not be able to vote on her Brexit deal until March 12, just 17 days before Britain leaves the EU, provoking alarm at home.

European Council President Donald Tusk said he had discussed the "legal and procedural context of a potential extension" when he met May on Sunday on the sidelines of an EU-Arab summit in Egypt's Sharm el-Sheikh.

"I believe in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution but Prime Minister May still believes she's able to avoid this scenario," Tusk told a closing summit press conference.

The EU has been watching with growing concern the possibility that Britain will crash out of the bloc without a deal, risking chaos on both sides of the Channel.

Speculation is mounting that lawmakers will in a series of votes this week move to delay Britain's withdrawal to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

The opposition Labour Party on Monday raised the pressure, saying it would put forward its own plan for Brexit, which calls for Britain to stay in the EU customs union, as part of those votes.

Labour then said if its plan was rejected, it would lend its support to an amendment on holding a second referendum on EU membership -- without specifying a date.

"We are committed to... putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said in a statement.

Corbyn, a lifelong eurosceptic who supports Brexit, has been highly ambiguous throughout the negotiations even though many of his MPs support a second referendum.

The Times described Corbyn's decision "a significant moment" but added that much would depend on the details of the new policy.

"A second referendum risks deepening the divisions in what is already a deeply divided country. It would prolong Brexit uncertainty for much of the rest of the year. And whatever the outcome, it would not settle the troubled question of Britain's relationship with the EU," it said in an editorial.

On currency markets, sterling rose further on speculation that May could push back the March 29 deadline in a bid to avert a painful no-deal divorce.

Adding to her woes, the Daily Mail reported that a group of 23 dissidents met secretly to discuss how to stop Britain leaving the EU without an agreement, with as many as 15 said to be ready to resign.

Second referendum? 

Taking a united stand, the EU and its remaining 27 countries have repeatedly rebuffed May's efforts to reopen the Brexit deal struck with her government in November.

Since British lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected her withdrawal deal last month, the Conservative prime minister has sought to address their concerns about the text's so-called "backstop" arrangement.

London wants the "backstop" -- the clause binding Northern Ireland into the EU customs union if a new deal to keep the Irish border open is not found -- to be time-limited or to be allowed to unilaterally end it.

The EU opposes any changes to an arrangement designed to keep the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland flowing. It also sees the "backstop" as an insurance policy for the peace process in the UK province of Northern Ireland.

Brussels however is not budging, though it is offering political reassurances.

Tusk said he told May that "no matter which scenario, all 27 (EU countries) will show maximum understanding and goodwill".

During a press conference Monday in Sharm El-Sheikh, May said she believes she can still deliver Brexit on time.

The European Commission, the EU's executive arm leading the Brexit negotiations, is still working on the assumption that Britain will leave the bloc on March 29, commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva told reporters earlier in Brussels.

She recalled that Britain would first have to request an extension and the remaining 27 EU countries would have to agree to it unanimously.

May's negotiating team was expected to continue its talks in Brussels on Tuesday.

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