Brexit bedlam: EU calls for delay, Labour urges 2nd referendum

After nearly two years of bitter talks on the departure of Britain from the European Union, there's now even disagreement between the two on when Brexit should actually take place.

British PM argues EU divorce deal 'within our grasp,' says delay would be futile

European Council President Donald Tusk said Monday that given the continued deadlock in the Parliament over Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal, pushing back the U.K.'s March 29 divorce date with the EU 'would be a rational solution.' (Yves Herman/Reuters)

After nearly two years of bitter talks on the departure of Britain from the European Union, there's now even disagreement between the two on when Brexit should actually take place.

While EU Council President Donald Tusk said Monday that it would be "rational" for the March 29 Brexit date to be extended, British Prime Minister Theresa May reiterated her opposition to any delay.

Tusk warned that the chances of a withdrawal agreement being concluded in time are receding, and with businesses fearing a chaotic and costly cliff-edge departure, sticking by the planned Brexit date would be too risky.

"I believe that in the situation we are in, an extension would be a rational solution," Tusk told reporters at an EU-Arab League summit in Egypt, acknowledging that he and British Prime Minister Theresa May had discussed prolonging the negotiations.

He said "all the 27 [remaining EU member states] will show maximum understanding and goodwill" to make possible such a postponement — a decision that would require a unanimous vote from them.

May insisted she could deliver on the set date, however massive the challenge.

"It is within our grasp to leave with a deal on March 29, and I think that that is where all of our energies should be focused," May said.

She said that "any delay is a delay. It doesn't address the issue. It doesn't resolve the issue."

Deal in the desert?

May met several EU leaders separately over two days at the summit in the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh.

She held talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as she sought elusive changes to the U.K.-EU divorce agreement.

And Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte warned her against "sleepwalking" into a chaotic Brexit next month and that it was time for Britain to step up and clinch a deal.

May has so far been unable to secure concessions from Brussels on key provisions of the EU divorce agreement, such as the Irish backstop, but on Monday she maintained 'it is within our grasp to leave with a deal on March 29.' (Francisco Seco/Associated Press)

"It's absolutely unacceptable. And I think your best friends have to warn you for that," Rutte told the BBC. "Wake up. This is real."

Britain's Parliament has rejected the deal once, and May has just over a month to get it approved by lawmakers before the U.K.'s legally set departure day of March 29.

May says a new vote won't be held this week and could come as late as March 12.

Backstop blues

U.K. lawmakers' objections to the Brexit deal centre on a provision for the border between the Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

May wants to change the deal to reassure British lawmakers that the backstop would only apply temporarily.

But EU leaders insist the legally binding withdrawal agreement, which took a year and a half to negotiate, can't be reopened.

Labour backs 2nd referendum

Lawmakers in May's Conservative Party and in the main Opposition Labour Party are stepping up efforts to try to ensure May cannot take Britain out of the EU without a deal at a vote due Wednesday on the government's next steps.

Labour on Monday threw its weight behind a call for a second Brexit referendum. Leader Jeremy Corbyn was scheduled to tell lawmakers that the party is committed to "putting forward or supporting an amendment in favour of a public vote to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit being forced on the country," according to advanced speech excerpts obtained by The Associated Press.

Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper said earlier Monday it was irresponsible of the government that just a few weeks before Brexit, "we still don't know what kind of Brexit we are going to have, and we're not even going to have a vote on it until two weeks before that final deadline.

"I don't see how businesses can plan, I don't see how public services can plan and I think it's just deeply damaging," Cooper told the BBC.

Two Conservatives have put forward another proposal to the government that would delay Brexit to May 23, the start of the European Parliament elections.

With files from Reuters