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EU leaders urge clarity from Britain before Brexit delay

Quitting the EU after 46 years on 29 March remains the legal default unless EU leaders unanimously grant Britain an extension.

FILE: Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: AFP.

LONDON - EU leaders on Friday sought clarity from Britain before they consider any delay to Brexit after a series of chaotic votes by MPs just two weeks before the deeply divided country is due to leave the bloc.

Quitting the EU after 46 years on 29 March remains the legal default unless EU leaders unanimously grant Britain an extension, with the issue likely to dominate a 21-22 March EU summit in Brussels.

The length of any possible delay will depend on the outcome of another parliamentary vote on the twice massively rejected Brexit deal struck by Prime Minister Theresa May with EU leaders.

The government said it would ask for a “technical” delay until 30 June to pass necessary legislation if MPs finally approve the deal next week.

If MPs vote against it for the third time, the government has warned it will have to seek a much longer extension.

“It is very clear that the next steps, the next proposal on how to move forward must come from Britain,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said in Berlin on Friday.

NEED FOR ‘CLEAR PLAN’

Speaking on a visit to Paris, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said “everyone would welcome” MPs approving the deal and Brexit being briefly pushed back to get the necessary legislation through.

But, asked about the possibility of a longer delay, Coveney said: “I think many EU leaders will be very uncomfortable with a long extension.”

He said Ireland would only consider it if it was to “implement a clear plan and strategy to reflect on and perhaps change direction in regard to Brexit”.

EU leaders have hinted they could support a longer delay only if Britain were to drop its red lines, particularly its insistence on leaving the EU customs union so as to pursue an independent trade policy.

The UK is barrelling towards the 29 March Brexit deadline with no approved EU withdrawal agreement and a prime minister who appears to have lost control over her bickering cabinet.

May struck her agreement with the EU in November after nearly two years of tortuous talks.

But the deal has remained deadlocked in parliament, chiefly by disagreement over the so-called Irish “backstop” - a measure to avoid barriers at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Lawmakers voted against the deal for a second time on Tuesday but then voted against leaving the EU without a deal on Wednesday.

On Thursday, MPs voted to ask EU leaders to simply push Brexit back in a bid to head off a hugely disruptive end to their partnership.

MPs also rejected a call to hold a second Brexit referendum - a blow to the hopes of a large number of Britons who still dream of keeping their European identity.

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