British lawmakers have decisively rejected a no-deal Brexit, inflicting another heavy defeat on Britain's embattled Prime Minister and paving a way for the UK's departure from the EU to be delayed.
The UK Parliament forced Theresa May to reject the option of leaving the European Union without a deal in any circumstances, in a motion that was worded more strongly than she had proposed.
Lawmakers will now vote on Thursday to decide whether Brexit should be postponed beyond the current March 29 deadline.
Wednesday's vote, carried by 321 to 278, doesn't change the default legal position, which is that without deal, or unless the EU agrees to delay Brexit, Britain crashes out in just over two weeks. That raises the prospect of huge delays at ports, food shortages in supermarkets, and a rise in long-simmering tensions in Northern Ireland.
May told the House of Commons that it would face important choices in the coming days. "The legal default in UK and EU law remains that the UK will leave the EU without a deal unless something else is agreed," she said after the vote.
She said that the government would ask the EU to delay Brexit if Parliament could agree on a withdrawal deal. "If the House finds a way in the coming days to support a deal, it would allow the government to seek a short technical extension. Such a short technical extension is only likely to be on offer if there's a deal in place."
Without consensus on a deal in the coming days, there will need to be a longer extension which would force the UK to take part in elections to the European Parliament in May, she said. "I do not think that would be the right outcome," the Prime Minister told lawmakers.
The prospect of the UK Parliament backing May's withdrawal deal seems remote. Lawmakers overwhelmingly rejected it for a second time on Tuesday, furious about a contentious guarantee, known as the Irish backstop. It's intended to prevent the return of border infrastructure in Northern Ireland by keeping customs arrangements between the UK and the Republic of Ireland aligned.
Euroskeptic lawmakers feared it would indefinitely bind the UK closer to the EU's rules.
Any request by the UK to delay Brexit must be agreed by Brussels. But the mood has been hardening among European politicians, who seem reluctant to reopen negotiations for a withdrawal deal or grant a delay to Brexit without any specific purpose.
EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told Members of the European Parliament on Wednesday that the ball was firmly in London's court. "It is UK's responsibility to tell us what they want for our future relations. That is the question that needs to be posed to which we expect an answer. It will be a priority even before the question of an extension. Negotiations on Article 50 are finished," he said.
The EU noted that Wednesday's vote had no legal effect. "To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal -- you have to agree to a deal", an EU spokesperson said.
"We have agreed a deal with the Prime Minister and the EU is ready to sign it," the spokesperson added. "There are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both."
As it stands, there seems to be no consensus in the House of Commons for any kind of Brexit.
One possible route is a third vote on May's withdrawal deal. May indicated as much at the House of Commons on Wednesday. "I want to leave the EU with a good deal, I believe we have a good deal," May, who is battling a cold, said.
"I may not have my own voice, but I understand the voice of the country."
Pro-EU lawmakers are pushing for a second referendum on Brexit. But the House of Commons doesn't seem ready to take that route either. Jeremy Corbyn, the opposition Labour leader, a longstanding euroskeptic, has still not embraced the cause of a so-called People's Vote, declining to advocate it when he addressed the Commons after May's withdrawal deal was defeated on Tuesday.
There are questions about whether May can survive the turmoil -- and whether the deadlock can only be broken by a general election.
As the clock ticks towards withdrawal day, business groups expressed dire warnings.
"We are now staring down the precipice," Catherine McGuinness, Policy Chair at the City of London Corporation said on Tuesday. "Politicians of every hue must overcome their differences and make avoiding a no-deal Brexit the absolute priority.
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