BRUSSELS – Worn down by three years of indecision in London, European Union leaders on Thursday were grudgingly leaning toward giving the U.K. a bit more time to ease itself out of the bloc, but they warned that if Britain’s Parliament spurns the offer, a chaotic exit would happen in just over a week.
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The deep uncertainty among leaders at an EU summit in Brussels was exceeded only by the high anxiety for politicians, businesses and citizens in Britain. The British military has even set up a command post in a bunker under the defence ministry in London to co-ordinate planning if needed.
French President Emmanuel Macron warned it was the responsibility of U.K. lawmakers to approve a Brexit deal and make sure Britain does not crash out of the bloc on March 29, its scheduled departure date, without an agreement.
“In case of a ‘no’ vote … it will guide everybody to a no-deal for sure,” Macron cautioned. “This is it.”
The House of Commons is split, both among and within its political parties, over whether and how to leave the EU. It has twice rejected the deal Prime Minister Theresa May brokered with the bloc’s leaders late last year.
“We are all waiting, waiting for what the British intend to do,” said EU Parliament President Antonio Tajani. “We are all concerned.”
This week, May finally acknowledged the Brexit gridlock and asked the EU to delay Britain’s departure until June 30 – enough time, she hopes, to win parliamentary approval for her deal in a third attempt and then pass the legislation necessary for a smooth departure.
At their meeting in Brussels, EU leaders considered the request – but with an earlier exit date of May 22 in mind, to avoid the need for Britain to participate in May 23-26 European Parliament elections.
The EU says an extension is conditional on May getting her deal through Parliament. But opposition to the agreement appeared to be hardening, rather than softening, after she blamed Parliament for the Brexit impasse.
In a televised address Wednesday night, May accused lawmakers of “infighting,” “political games” and “arcane procedural rows,” but acknowledged no personal error in creating the deadlock.
A lawmaker from May’s Conservative Party called the speech “toxic.” Legislator Anna Soubry, of the breakaway Independent Group, described it as the “most dishonest and divisive statement from any prime minister.”
In response, May hunkered down, calling on lawmakers to back her agreement and refusing to rule out a no-deal exit if they did not back her.
“What matters is that we recognize that Brexit is the decision of the British people. We need to deliver on that,” May said as she entered the summit in Brussels. “I sincerely hope that will be with a negotiated deal.”
Businesses and economists say a no-deal Brexit would cause huge disruptions and billions in costs to the economies of both Britain and the EU.
Underscoring the sense of dread gripping the nation, one of Britain’s biggest business lobbies and a major trade union federation said in a rare joint appeal that the “country is facing a national emergency.”
The Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress warned May that if Britain crashes out of the EU, “the shock to our economy would be felt by generations to come.”
Britain’s military said the command post under the ministry of defence was set up as a continuation of earlier planning operations, called Operation Redfold, designed to minimize disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
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The ministry said in a statement it had 3,500 troops on standby to help with any disruptions if the government asks for assistance.
Worry about a chaotic departure is rising among EU leaders, who fear May no longer has the clout in Parliament to get her way.
Britain will be forced to leave the EU on March 29 unless the 27 other nations unanimously grant an extension. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said that among the other EU leaders, “there is an openness to an extension across the board.”
“Nobody wants no-deal here,” Varadkar told reporters.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel vowed to work “until the last hour” to try to ensure that Britain doesn’t leave without a deal, even though her government has enacted emergency measures to deal with such a scenario just in case.
Should May fail to get her deal passed, EU leaders could be forced to meet again next week, with a much longer extension a possibility. But May would have to ask for one, and she has so far ruled out a delay beyond June.
May plans to make a third attempt to get her deal through Parliament next week. But many pro-Brexit legislators still oppose it, saying it does not deliver the clean break they long for. And Pro-EU lawmakers will try to derail May and wrest away control of the Brexit process to steer Britain toward a close relationship with the bloc.
It’s a struggle that has been going on for almost three years and has brought the U.K. to within eight days of a chaotic Brexit.
EU leaders are watching with disbelief, horror – and, for some, sympathy.
“I never got frustrated with Theresa May. I have the highest respect for her,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “Her tenacity is enormous. But she is working in an extremely difficult situation.
“It’s not her mistake that we are where we are – it’s because too many people have so far played party politics on this issue.”
— Associated Press writers Samuel Petrequin and Lorne Cook in Brussels, Geir Moulson in Berlin, Danica Kirka in London and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed.