LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal may not be dead after all — even though lawmakers voted to reject it for a third time Friday — the day Britain had long been scheduled to leave the European Union.
The U.K. now faces a deadline of April 12 to present the EU with a new plan, or crash out of the bloc without an agreement.
But May’s government is considering a fourth vote on her deal, bolstered by their success in narrowing margin of defeat to 58 votes on Friday from 230 votes in January.
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Here’s a look at what could happen next:
The EU has given Britain until April 12 — two weeks away — to decide whether it wants to ask for another postponement to Brexit. The bloc has called an emergency Brexit summit for April 10 to deal with a British request, or prepare for a no-deal Brexit.
Without a delay, Britain will leave the bloc at 11 p.m. U.K. time (6 p.m. EDT) on April 12 without a divorce agreement to smooth the way. Most politicians, economists and business groups think such a no-deal scenario would be disastrous, erecting customs checks, tariffs and other barriers between Britain and its biggest trading partner.
Parliament has voted repeatedly to rule out a no-deal Brexit — but it remains the default position unless a deal is approved, Brexit is canceled or the EU grants Britain another extension.
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Delay and soften
The alternative to “no-deal” is to delay Brexit for at least several months while Britain tries to sort out the mess.
The bloc is reluctant to have a departing Britain participate in European Parliament elections in late May, which it would have to do if Brexit is delayed. But EU Council President Donald Tusk has urged the bloc to give Britain an extension if it plans to change course and seek a softer Brexit that keeps close economic ties between Britain and the bloc.
This week British lawmakers held a series of “indicative votes” on alternatives to May’s deal — and all eight options on offer were defeated. But the move did hint at a potential compromise. The measure that came closest to a majority called for Britain to remain in a customs union with the EU after it leaves.
May has always ruled that out, because sticking to EU trade rules would limit Britain’s ability to forge new trade deals around the world.
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But a customs union would ensure U.K. businesses can continue to trade with the EU, and would solve many of the problems that bedevil May’s deal. In particular, it would remove the need for customs posts and border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
There’s a good chance a withdrawal agreement that included a customs union pledge would be approved by Parliament, and welcomed by the EU.
But some hard-line Conservative Party lawmakers have written to May, insisting that she not agree to a Brexit extension beyond May 22, which would force the U.K. to take part in the next European Parliament election, the Sun newspaper reported.
The letter urged the prime minister to bring her Brexit deal back to Parliament for a fourth vote, with the threat of a general election if it is rejected again, the Sun said.
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Britain is not scheduled to hold a national election until 2022, but the gridlock in Parliament makes an early vote more likely.
Opposition politicians think the only way forward is an early election that could rearrange Parliament and break its current political deadlock. They could try to bring down May’s Conservative-led government in a no-confidence vote, triggering a general election.
Or the government could pull the trigger itself, if it thinks it has nothing to lose.
May has promised to quit if her Brexit deal is approved and Britain left the EU in May. Even though it was defeated, she will still face huge pressure to resign, paving the way for a Conservative Party leadership contest.
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A new Brexit referendum
Another option considered by British lawmakers this week called for any Brexit deal to be put to public vote in a “confirmatory referendum.” The idea has significant support from opposition parties, plus some Conservatives.
The government has ruled out holding another referendum on Britain’s EU membership, but could change its mind if there appeared no other way to pass a Brexit deal.
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Britain voted 52 per cent to 48 per cent to leave the EU in 2016. Since then, polls suggest the “remain” side has gained in strength, but it’s far from clear who would win a new referendum.
The new vote could leave Britain just as divided over Europe as it is now.