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Theresa May to Parliament: give me just a little more time on Brexit

The British PM says she’s still trying to work out her deal with the EU as the deadline looms next month.

Theresa May Goes To The House Of Commons To Deliver Brexit Progress Statement
Prime Minister Theresa May on February 12, 2019.
Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, faced with the near-impossible task of renegotiating part of her Brexit deal with the European Union before the rapidly approaching Brexit deadline, has resorted to the time-honored strategy of stalling for time.

“Having secured an agreement with the European Union for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process,” May said in a speech to Parliament on Tuesday. “When we achieve the progress we need, we will bring forward another meaningful vote.”

Or, in the words of the 1970s soul group Chairmen of the Board, “Give me just a little more time.”

When that next “meaningful vote” in Parliament will actually take place, though, is still unclear. But it’s getting precipitously close to the March 29, 2019, deadline, the date when the UK will leave the EU, with or without an agreement in place.

“The talks are at a crucial stage,” May told Parliament on Tuesday. “We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time.”

The prime minister made this plea during an update to members of Parliament, the first major one she’s made since she returned from trips to meet with her counterparts in Brussels and Dublin. She’s trying to renegotiate the “Irish backstop,” part of the Brexit deal meant to guarantee that no “hard” border — meaning actual physical checkpoints for goods and people trying to cross — is created between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as a result of Brexit.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but the Republic of Ireland is an independent country. Both are currently members of the EU, which has enabled the two — which until fairly recently endured years of conflict — to have an open border, allowing for the free flow of people and goods and enabling people on both sides to develop closer ties.

The concern now, though, is that when the UK withdraws from the EU, a hard border will go back up between the two Irish neighbors, severing those ties and potentially reigniting the conflict. The so-called “Irish backstop,” which May negotiated as part of her larger Brexit deal with the EU, is meant to prevent that from happening.

But many members of her party — specifically the hardline Brexiteers who want a clean break with the EU — didn’t like the backstop arrangement she worked out, and last month voted to send her back to the negotiating table.

Except the EU has insisted — and continues to insist — that the backstop, which it sees as a critical part of the larger withdrawal agreement, cannot be revised.

So the Brexit impasse prevails.

But the UK and EU are talking, at least, and May is trying to make a case that this means a breakthrough is theoretically possible. She just needs more time.

The only problem is that time is quickly running out. With just a little more than a month left to go, May’s critics are accusing her of running out the clock, leaving Parliament no choice but to vote on a deal, whether they like it or not, to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

That scenario would be disastrous for the economy, and while businesses and people are preparing — doing everything from stockpiling goods to hoarding medicines — the consequences would be unpredictable and dire.

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