Tusk hints at Brexit cancellation, as UK government faces crisis

President of the European Council, Donald Tusk gives a press conference at the end of first day at the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 13 December 2018. [EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET]

The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, has hinted that the UK should consider staying in the European Union after Prime Minister May’s Conservative government experienced a calamitous defeat in the House of Commons on her Brexit deal last night (15 January).

“If a deal is impossible, and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?”, Tusk said on Twitter.

MPs rejected May’s plans by an unprecedented margin of 230 on Tuesday evening, representing the largest defeat by a governing party in modern history. 432 members said no to the deal, while 202 supported it.

Theresa May herself was markedly disappointed at the margin of the loss, coming out on the defensive. “Every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour,” she warned.

“The Government has heard what the House has said tonight, but I ask Members on all sides of the House to listen to the British people, who want this issue settled, and to work with the Government to do just that.”

May to face confidence vote after Brexit deal suffers crushing defeat

Theresa May will face a no confidence vote after MPs rejected her Brexit agreement by a crushing 230 majority on Tuesday night (15 January).

Elsewhere in the EU, Brexit Chief negotiator Michel Barnier remained cautious.

“Now it’s time for the UK to tell us the next steps,” he told reporters on Tuesday evening. “On our side, we we remain united and determined to reach a deal.”

Barnier is set to take part in a debate at the European Parliament in Strasbourg today (16 December), and many MEPs are now calling for more clarity from the British Government.

The leader of the Brexit steering group in the European Parliament, liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt, called on British MPs in Westminster to clarify their intentions.

“Now is the time to find out what UK parliamentarians want,” Verhofstadt said, insisting that “the rights of citizens must be safeguarded” in the process.

No confidence vote

Back on British soil, political officials remain divided. Immediately after May’s defeat, opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn tabled a motion calling for a no confidence vote in the government.

“In the last two years she has only had one priority – the Conservative party,” Corbyn said. “Her governing principle of delay and denial has reached the end of the line. She cannot seriously believe that after two years of failure she is capable of negotiating a good deal for the people of this country.”

'No deal would be more Millennium Bug than Armageddon', say Brexiteers

The EU may have repeated that the Withdrawal Agreement struck with Theresa May is the only deal on offer but plenty of British MPs do not believe them.

Corbyn’s motion for no confidence in the government will be debated from 1pm British time for around six hours, before a vote takes place at 7pm.

May is expected to win the vote, after many who had voted against her Brexit plans on Tuesday evening said that they would support her on Wednesday, including influential Brexiteer Boris Johnson.

Second referendum

In this scenario, the public stance of the Labour party is to lobby the government for a second referendum, an option also backed by the Scottish National Party.

Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is heading to Westminster today to talk about the next moves for a party that has adopted an unambiguous stance throughout: Scotland wants to remain part of the EU.

Following Tuesday’s vote, Sturgeon said that a second referendum was now the “only credible option” left on the table.

Hard Brexit

If a second referendum fails to come to fruition, another outcome remains: for the UK to withdraw from the EU on the 29 March without a deal, meaning that any trade that takes place between the two parties would happen under World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs.

This is an option preferred by many hardline Brexiteers, including Jacob Rees Mogg, the leader of the eurosceptic European Research Group (ERG).

“The government’s agreement has been defeated,” Mogg said after the vote on Tuesday evening. “The law is in place for us to leave on WTO terms, the government ought to go back to Brussels and say ‘if we can’t agree anything, in the interim that is what will happen.”

However, there is no majority in the House of Commons for the UK to leave on a ‘no-deal’ basis, and the hard Brexit that many in the ERG are lobbying for is unlikely to occur.

EU leaders are not in the mood to wait around as the UK government struggles with domestic divisions. “I urge the United Kingdom to clarify its intentions as soon as possible,” Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in a statement on Tuesday evening.

“Time is almost up,” he added on Twitter.

EU open to Brexit delay, but asks: ‘What for?’

The European Union is looking at how Brexit might be postponed and is open to the idea, with EU officials talking of delays from a few weeks to a full year, but it questions whether any such move can prevent a divided nation crashing out in chaos.

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