By Guy Faulconbridge and Alistair Smout
LONDON (Reuters) – British lawmakers will face a stark choice between Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal or a long extension to the March 29 deadline for leaving the bloc, the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator was overheard saying in a Brussels bar.
Unless May can get a Brexit deal approved by the British parliament, she will have to decide whether to delay Brexit or thrust the world’s fifth largest economy into chaos by leaving without a deal.
May has repeatedly said the United Kingdom will leave on schedule, with or without a deal, as she tries to get the EU to reopen the divorce agreement she reached in November.
But her chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, was overheard by an ITV correspondent at a hotel bar in Brussels saying lawmakers would have to choose whether to accept a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay.
“Got to make them believe that the week beginning end of March… Extension is possible but if they don’t vote for the deal then the extension is a long one,” ITV quoted Robbins as saying in the hotel bar on Monday during a private conversation.
Robbins made clear that he felt the fear of a long extension to Article 50 – the process of leaving the EU – might focus lawmakers’ minds, ITV said.
The spectacle of one of May’s most senior officials undermining her negotiating position in a hotel bar in Brussels indicates the scale of the United Kingdom’s Brexit crisis that has shocked both investors and allies.
It is unclear why Robbins, an experienced civil servant, would make such comments in a hotel bar. His remarks will deepen the concerns of Brexit-supporting lawmakers that May could ultimately delay leaving the bloc.
Amid the labyrinthine plots and counterplots of Brexit, the United Kingdom’s most significant political and economic move since World War Two, some major investors, such as Ford Motor Co, are trying to work out whether to shutter UK production.
The British pound, which rose as high as $1.50 on the day of the 2016 Brexit referendum, was trading at $1.2890 on Wednesday.
Robbins’ comments appear to undermine May’s central threat of a no-deal Brexit – a scenario that supporters of EU membership say would threaten the United Kingdom’s unity, spook investors and create possible chaos at major ports.
Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay said he did not want to comment on conversations heard second hand in a noisy bar but the government’s position was that the United Kingdom would leave on March 29 but wanted to do so with a deal.
“If the PM decides we are leaving on 29 March, deal or no deal, that will happen,” Brexit-supporting Conservative Party lawmaker Steve Baker said. “Officials advise. Ministers decide.”
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed the EU would strike a deal, even as Dublin continued its preparations for all outcomes, including a no deal.
The British parliament will debate Brexit on Thursday followed by votes on proposals by lawmakers. The opposition Labor Party will back a proposal to try to force the government to take decisions on its Brexit plans by the middle of March.
On a call with business leaders on Tuesday, May gave the impression she was determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit if she can.
“She’s determined to try and avoid a no-deal Brexit if she can, because she recognizes in talking to business that this could be very damaging for the UK economy and ergo jobs,” Tony Smurfit, chief executive of Irish packaging group Smurfit Kappa, told Reuters.
Britain’s economy will barely grow in the run-up to Brexit but if there is a deal there will be a modest post-divorce upturn, according to economists polled by Reuters.
Ford Motor Co told May that it is stepping up preparations to move production out of Britain, The Times reported on Tuesday.
(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence)