LONDON – Prime Minister Theresa May made a blunt appeal to skeptical lawmakers on Monday to back her divorce deal with the European Union: It isn’t perfect, but it’s all there is, and the alternative is a leap into the unknown.
In essence, she urged Parliament: Let’s agree and move on, for the sake of the voters.
Britain and the 27 other EU leaders signed off on a Brexit deal Sunday after more than a year and a half of tough negotiations. It was a day many doubted would ever come, but May was anything but triumphant as she reported back to Parliament, which now controls the fate of the deal. May confirmed that British lawmakers will vote Dec. 11, after several days of debate, on whether to approve or reject the agreement.
Scores of legislators – from both the opposition and May’s governing Conservative Party – have vowed to oppose it. Rejection would plunge Britain into a political crisis and potential financial turmoil just weeks before it is due to leave the EU on March 29.
“No one knows what would happen if this deal didn’t pass,” May told the House of Commons.
“Our duty as a Parliament over these coming weeks is to examine this deal in detail, to debate it respectfully, to listen to our constituents and decide what is in our national interest.”
Before then, May plans a frantic two-week cross-country campaign to convince both the public and lawmakers that the deal delivers on voters’ decision in 2016 to leave the EU “while providing a close economic and security relationship with our nearest neighbors.”
But May’s defense of her hard-won deal in Parliament was followed by a torrent of criticism, from hard-core Brexit-backers, pro-EU lawmakers and previously loyal backbenchers alike.
Legislators on both sides hate the deal, a compromise that keeps Britain outside the EU with no say but still subject to the rules and the obligations of membership at least until the end of 2020 while a permanent new relationship is worked out.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said the “botched deal” would leave Britain worse off, with “no say over EU rules and no certainty for the future.”
“Plowing on is not stoic. It’s an act of national self-harm,” he said.
May said reaching the deal had “required give and take on both sides. That is the nature of a negotiation.”
She argued that the British people are sick of endless debates about Brexit, and backing the deal would allow “us to come together again as a country whichever way we voted.”
“The majority of the British public want us to get on with doing what they asked us to,” she said.
The majority of lawmakers appear unconvinced. Dozens of Conservative legislators say they will reject the deal, either because they want a harder or a softer break with the EU. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, also opposes it, as do all the main opposition parties.
“The Prime Minister and the whole House knows the mathematics – this will never get through,” said Brexit-backing Conservative Mark Francois, who described the deal as “a surrender” to the EU.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay conceded that “it’s going to be a challenging vote.” But he said Britain would be in “choppy waters” if the deal was rejected.
Both Britain and the EU are adamant that the U.K. can’t renegotiate the agreement, and opponents of the deal do not agree on what should happen next if Parliament rejects it. Some want an election, others a new referendum, and some say Britain should leave the bloc without a deal.
“I can say to the House with absolute certainty that there is not a better deal available,” May said.
She said rejecting it “would open the door to more division and more uncertainty, with all the risks that will entail.”
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