MPs debate rejecting no-deal Brexit as Brussels demands answers on what UK wants

The European Union has called for “clear answers” on the UK’s Brexit plan as MPs consider rejecting the prospect of crashing out without an agreement in 16 days.

With a majority of MPs expected to oppose leaving without a deal on March 29, the prospect of a delay to Brexit is increasing – but Brussels wants to know what the purpose of any extension would be given Parliament’s inability to agree on a way forward.

Chancellor Philip Hammond led calls for a compromise solution after the Commons overwhelmingly rejected Theresa May’s deal on Tuesday night, amid warnings a no-deal Brexit would lead to job losses and price rises.

But Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said a no-deal scenario was better than the prospect of not leaving the European Union at all – even though it would increase tensions between the members of the UK.

The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier again insisted there will be no further offer from Brussels apart from the deal already on the table and it is now “the responsibility of the UK” to suggest a way forward.

He asked the European Parliament: “What will their choice be, what will be the line they will take?

“That is the question we need a clear answer to now. That is the question that has to be answered before a decision on a possible further extension.

“Why would we extend these discussions? The discussion on Article 50 is done and dusted. We have the Withdrawal Agreement. It is there.

“That is the question asked and we are waiting for an answer to that.”

Mr Barnier added: “The risk of no-deal has never been higher. That is the risk of an exit – even by accident – by the UK from the EU in a disorderly fashion.”

To avoid a walkout by Cabinet ministers who oppose a no-deal Brexit, Mrs May has given Tories a free vote on the Commons motion.

The wording of the motion declares the Commons “declines to approve” leaving without a deal on March 29 – but notes that remains the default position unless an agreement is reached.

Members of the Malthouse Compromise group of Tories from both Leave and Remain wings have tabled an amendment calling for Brexit to be delayed until May 22, followed by a “standstill” agreement lasting as late as the end of 2021, during which the UK would observe EU rules and pay into Brussels budgets while a full trade deal is negotiated.

The EU has already rejected the idea, which it views as amounting to a transition period without a formal Withdrawal Agreement.

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker, one of the amendment’s backers, said “negotiability is a dynamic concept”.

A separate cross-party amendment tabled by Tory Dame Caroline Spelman would reject leaving without a deal in any circumstance.

If MPs reject no-deal – as most Westminster observers expect – more votes will follow on Thursday on whether to authorise Mrs May to request an extension of the two-year Article 50 negotiation process.

Divisions between the different wings of the Cabinet were on show as MPs considered rejecting a no-deal Brexit.

The Chancellor used his Spring Statement to call on MPs to “put aside our differences and seek a compromise”, warning the UK would face “significant disruption” from a no-deal Brexit.

But Brexit Secretary Mr Barclay said he would prefer a no-deal scenario – even though it risks economic harm and threatens to break up the United Kingdom – to the prospect of not leaving the European Union.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Between those very unpleasant choices, I think no Brexit is the bigger risk.”

Environment Secretary Michael Gove, standing in for Mrs May in the Commons after she lost her voice, told MPs: “If we do choose to leave without a deal on March 29 there’ll be economic, political and constitutional challenges that this country will face.

“Now we are a great country, we would get through it, we would in due course ensure that this country was more prosperous, freer and successful and, of course, Government has been working hard in order to ensure that we can be prepared for any eventuality and we can mitigate the risks of leaving without a deal.”

Meanwhile, Irish premier Leo Varadkar has said that people who advocated for Brexit has been chasing unicorns for a “very long time”.

Speaking to the press at the US Chamber of Commerce in Washington he said: “As we head into the next few weeks it should be blatantly obvious that unicorns only exist in fairy tales.

“I would say to people who advocated Brexit – is this really what they wanted, protectionism, borders, tariffs, restrictions on trade.

“Is this really what Brexit was all about. And for those who voted against the Withdrawal Agreement on the basis that they feared that Northern Ireland would be treated differently as a result of the backstop, it must be evident to them now that it’s the UK Government’s intention to treat Northern Ireland differently.”

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said he still expects Brussels to come up with a new deal, telling LBC Radio: “The horses always change places in the final furlong, it’s always at five minutes to midnight that the real deal is done.”

He said it is “absurd” for Mrs May to grant a free vote on no-deal because it is a “fundamental” part of the Brexit negotiating strategy.

In preparation for a no-deal outcome, the UK has set out its new tariff schedule, which would force up prices on EU imports including cars and many food products but could reduce costs on goods from elsewhere.

The CBI warned the new tariffs would act as a “sledgehammer” to the economy.

The UK Government will also not introduce any new checks or controls on goods moving across the land border into Northern Ireland, raising fears it would potentially create a loophole which could be exploited by smugglers.

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