An anti-Brexit protester demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, April 3, 2019- Reuters
LONDON - 4 April 2019: Britain could ask the European Union for a long Brexit delay next week if crisis talks between Prime Minister Theresa May's government and the opposition Labour Party fail to find a way out of the impasse over the divorce from the European Union.
Brexit is now in mired in doubt, nearly three years since the United Kingdom shocked the world by voting 52 percent to 48 to leave the bloc. Supporters fear betrayal and opponents are pushing for another referendum.
May, who has already delayed Brexit once, is now trying to find a way to get a divorce deal approved by courting opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn who wants to agree a much closer post-Brexit economic relationship with the EU.
"The important thing now is that in any extension that we get from the EU, we have an absolute clarity that as soon as we've done the deal, we are able to bring that extension to an end," finance minister Philip Hammond told ITV.
When asked if he was comfortable about a long extension, he said he was not comfortable about it, but that the defeat of May's deal on Friday, the very day that Britain was due to have left the EU, meant "we are where we are."
Corbyn, a veteran socialist campaigner whom May has repeatedly derided as unfit for office, said on Wednesday that she had not moved far enough in talks which continued, at a lower level, on Thursday.
Labour's Brexit point man, Keir Starmer, and Corbyn's strategy chief, Seumas Milne, were seen entering the Cabinet Office with May's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on Thursday. May's de-facto deputy, David Lidington, will also attend.
The aim, May's spokesman said, was to have intensive discussions. A further meeting between May and Corbyn will happen when there is a reason for one, her spokesman said.
Hammond said that if talks failed, the government would present some ideas from the discussions to parliament. Lawmakers may have to sacrifice some of their Easter holidays, the government said.
The Brexit vote exposed deep fractures in British society, though the crisis it triggered has also shown a political system in dire need of reform. It is unclear how, when or if Britain will leave the EU.
The chaos has raised fears of a disorderly exit that would shock the British economy, roil financial markets and even hurt global trade. The European Central Bank has warned that markets need to price in a no-deal Brexit.
Concern about Brexit is slowing the German economy, leading top economic institutes to slash their forecasts for 2019 growth by more than half on Thursday.
The House of Commons on Wednesday approved legislation which would force May to seek a Brexit delay to prevent a no-deal departure on April 12.
"If passed ... this bill would place a severe constraint on the government's ability to negotiate an extension," May's spokesman said.
After more than two years of tortuous discussions about the minutiae of the separation, EU leaders are weary of London's failure to agree its own divorce and patience is wearing thin.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said in Brussels that Britain would not get any further short delays unless its parliament ratified a deal by April 12 - the date set by EU leaders as the effective cut-off for avoiding the European Parliament elections.
The EU is discussing different options: a delay until the end of the year, next Spring or the end of 2020 though in recent days discussions have focused mostly on a one year delay.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will meet residents who live along the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland during a visit to Dublin on Thursday to discuss Brexit to learn what impact any return of frontier checks would have on their lives.
Merkel will use her trip to meet Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to consider the border situation and how to prevent a no-deal "hard Brexit".
UBS Wealth Management said it was unlikely the parliamentary deadlock would be broken in the near term so a long extension to the divorce window, known as Article 50, was likely.
"Failure to secure the passage of the Withdrawal Agreement in the coming days would result in a long extension to Article 50," UBS said. "This extension will be granted by the EU27, with conditions."