Business Chief Says Delaying Brexit Helps Provide 'Sanity'

LONDON (AP) — Prime Minister Theresa May insisted Wednesday that Britain will leave the European Union on schedule next month, while the head of a major business organization said May's grudging decision to allow lawmakers to vote to delay Brexit provides an "option on sanity."

May has bowed to pressure from within her own Conservative government and given Parliament the chance to delay Britain's scheduled March 29 departure if lawmakers fail to approve her divorce agreement with the bloc.

May stressed that she personally opposes extending the Brexit deadline, and said "the United Kingdom remains on course to leave the European Union with a deal" if lawmakers "hold their nerve." Writing in the Daily Mail, May said talks with the EU about securing changes to the divorce deal to make it more palatable to Parliament have "begun to bear fruit."

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The House of Commons rejected May's deal with the EU last month — largely over concerns about a provision to guarantee an open border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — and sent May back to Brussels to get changes.

The EU is adamant that the legally binding withdrawal agreement can't be changed, though the bloc's negotiators are holding talks with U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox about potential tweaks or additions around the margins.

On Tuesday, May gave Parliament a greater say over Brexit to forestall a rebellion by pro-EU members of her government, who threatened to quit and vote with the opposition in order to rule out a disruptive "no-deal" Brexit.

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She said Parliament will get to vote again on the deal by March 12. If it is rejected, lawmakers will then vote on whether to leave the EU without an agreement or seek to postpone Brexit by up to three months.

The move angered pro-Brexit lawmakers, who fear any postponement could be a step toward stopping Britain's departure.

It was welcomed, however, by pro-EU members of Britain's divided Parliament. They will try to impose more conditions on the government's Brexit negotiating strategy in a series of votes on Wednesday evening.

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British businesses also welcomed the prospect of a delay. They warn that without a deal, Britain risks a chaotic departure that could disrupt trade between the U.K. and the EU, its biggest trading partner.

Confederation of British Industry head Carolyn Fairbairn said neither business nor the government is ready to leave, and exiting without a deal would be "a wrecking ball on our economy."

Delaying Brexit would require approval from all 27 other EU countries, whose leaders are annoyed by what they see as the inability of feuding British politicians to agree on what kind of relationship the U.K. wants with the bloc.

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Wednesday that there must be clarity that extending negotiations would not just prolong the impasse facing both sides.

EU politicians say Britain must have a good reason for seeking a pause.

French President Emmanuel Macron said any such request would need to be justified by "a clear perspective on the goal."

"We don't need time, we need decisions," he said at a joint news conference in Paris with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Merkel said the EU would not refuse Britain "a bit more time."

She said "we are aiming for an orderly solution — an orderly withdrawal by the British from the European Union."


By AP reporter Jill Lawless

Sylvie Corbet in Paris, Geir Moulson in Berlin and Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.


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