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story.lead_photo.caption Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (front row center) laughs Thursday as the House of Commons debates issues surrounding the country’s European Union exit.

LONDON -- After weeks of political gridlock, Britain's Parliament voted Thursday to ask to postpone the country's departure from the European Union, seeking to avert a chaotic withdrawal on the scheduled exit date of March 29.

With Britain's withdrawal due in two weeks and no divorce deal yet approved, the House of Commons voted 413-202 to ask the bloc to put off Britain's exit until at least June 30.

Power to approve or reject the extension lies with the EU, which has signaled that it will allow a delay only if Britain either approves a divorce deal or makes a fundamental shift in its approach to withdrawal.

Prime Minister Theresa May is likely to ask EU leaders for an extension at a March 21-22 summit of the bloc in Brussels.

The European Commission said the bloc would consider any request, "taking into account the reasons for and duration of a possible extension."

May was forced to consider a delay after lawmakers twice rejected her EU divorce deal and ruled out, in principle, leaving the bloc without an agreement. Withdrawing without a deal could mean significant disruptions for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining countries.

By law, Britain will leave the EU on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels its departure or secures a delay.

On Thursday, lawmakers rejected an attempt to strip May of control over the exit agenda. They defeated by a narrow margin -- 314-312 -- an opposition attempt to let Parliament choose an alternative to May's rejected divorce deal and force the government to negotiate it with the EU.

Lawmakers also voted against holding a second exit referendum -- at least for now.

By a decisive 334-85 vote, they defeated a motion that called for another vote by the public on whether to stay in the EU or leave. Campaigners for a new referendum are divided over whether the time is right to push for a second exit vote. The vote doesn't prevent lawmakers from trying again later to get Parliament's support for another referendum.

Despite the rebuffs and the political chaos that have weakened her authority, May has signaled that she will try a third time to get backing for her agreement next week. She is seeking to win over anti-EU lawmakers in her own party and its Northern Irish political ally, the Democratic Unionist Party, who fear the deal keeps Britain too closely tied to the EU.

If May's deal is approved, she hopes to use a delay until June 30 to enact legislation needed for Britain's departure. She has warned anti-EU lawmakers who oppose her deal that if no withdrawal agreement is passed in the coming days, the only option will be to seek a long extension that could mean Britain's withdrawal never happens.

Any delay in the process would require the unanimous approval of all 27 remaining EU member states -- and leaders in the bloc are exasperated at the events in London. They have said they will approve an extension if there is a specific reason, but don't want to provide more time for political bickering in Britain.

"Under no circumstances an extension in the dark!" tweeted the European Parliament's exit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt. "Unless there is a clear majority in the House of Commons for something precise, there is no reason at all for the European Council to agree on a prolongation."

Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said the EU needed "more decisions" from London.

The EU is also reluctant to postpone Britain's exit beyond the late May elections for the European Parliament, because that would mean Britain taking part even as it prepares to leave.

The bloc is more open to a long delay to allow Britain to radically change course -- an idea favored by pro-EU British lawmakers who want to maintain close ties with the EU.

European Council President Donald Tusk tweeted that he will appeal to EU leaders "to be open to a long extension if the U.K. finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus about it."

U.S. President Donald Trump said he was "surprised at how badly" the negotiations have been handled. Trump, who sees himself as a deal-maker, said he gave May advice but she didn't listen to him.

Speaking alongside Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar at the White House, Trump said Britain's debate over leaving the EU was "tearing the country apart."

British businesses expressed relief at the prospect of a delay. Many worry that a no-deal exit would cause upheaval, with customs checks causing gridlock at U.K. ports, new tariffs triggering sudden price increases and red tape for everyone from truckers to tourists.

Information for this article was contributed by Gregory Katz and Raf Casert of The Associated Press.

Photo by AP/MATT DUNHAM
People opposed to Britain’s exit from the European Union protest Thursday near the Houses of Parliament in London.

A Section on 03/15/2019

Print Headline: Brits vote to seek delay of EU exit

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