LONDON — Having twice thrown out Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan for Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, the fractious British Parliament on Wednesday also rejected the idea of a disorderly “no-deal” exit from the bloc.
But if Britain’s newly assertive lawmakers have found it easy to say what they do not like, deciding on their next steps will be harder.
Wednesday’s vote against a no-deal exit should clear the path for Parliament to request extra time for the withdrawal process, known as Brexit, in a vote scheduled for Thursday. The question then becomes for how long and to what purpose.
On Wednesday, lawmakers once again defied the prime minister’s wishes and undercut her already tattered authority.
Mrs. May had backed a non-binding motion stating that Parliament opposed a no-deal exit on March 29, when Brexit is scheduled to take effect.
Unexpectedly and over the prime minister’s objections, Parliament voted 312 to 308 to amend the motion to reject a no-deal Brexit at any date. The government then lobbied lawmakers to defeat the motion, itself, but they approved it, 321 to 278.
After two years of delay and dithering, decisions have taken on a new urgency with the March 29 deadline to leave the bloc bearing down. The detailed agreement negotiated by Mrs. May and the European Union — which Parliament rejected in January and again on Tuesday — would have dictated Britain’s relationship to the bloc after that date.
To leave without any agreement could mean chaos, with ports clogged, industries crippled, and supplies of some food and medicines running out.
The European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has specified May 24 as the deadline for any Brexit extension, though others think this could be pushed to the end of June, just before the new European Parliament is constituted.CreditJean Francois Badias/Associated Press
Just how bad it could be came into focus on Wednesday, when the government published contingency plans for tariffs in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit. Under a new regime, tariffs would be placed for the first time on some goods from the European Union, while some on products from the rest of the world would be dropped.
The practical effect would be to undercut some farmers, for example, and add to the costs of some imported goods — hundreds of dollars for some popular imported cars. Economists have said that the damage to Britain’s economy would be severe.
The government also said it would not introduce controls on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, a prospect that critics said issued a golden invitation to smugglers and organized crime syndicates.
Given such problems, the European Union has its own reasons for wanting to avoid a no-deal Brexit. But it has its own needs, too.
The bloc would have no practical objections to a two-month delay, except that it could be too little to accomplish anything. A longer delay would give more time for a change of direction from Britain — perhaps a general election or a second referendum — but would cause big legal and political complications.
One complicating factor is the May 24 start date for elections to the European Parliament. With Britain planning to leave the bloc, neither of its main political parties wants to contest these elections.
Yet, as a matter of law, all member countries are required to participate. So, were Britain to sit out the elections while remaining a European Union member for any period of time, that could open the decisions of the European Parliament to legal challenge.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, has specified May 24 as the deadline for any Brexit extension, though others think this could be pushed to the end of June, just before the new European Parliament is seated.
Either way, the problem is that such a short delay would be useful only if a solution were in sight to Britain’s political deadlock over Brexit.
“Eight weeks isn’t going to change the world,” said Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, senior adviser for Europe at the Bertelsmann Foundation, a research institute based in Germany. “Everything is already on the table and all the positions are clear, so where does the impetus come for something new in eight weeks?”
If Parliament were still deadlocked at the end of May or June, and Britain then requested a second time out, things would get sticky, he said.
At that point it would be very difficult to keep Britain a member of the club if it had not contested European elections. So there would need to be a much bigger change to justify it — perhaps a general election, or another referendum like the one in 2016, in which 52 percent of British voters endorsed Brexit.
Not for the first time, the pressure is on London to say what it wants.
“The Europeans are in a holding position,” said Mr. Fritz-Vannahme, “waiting to see what the mess in Westminster brings: a new prime minister, new elections, a new referendum — or nothing.”
More immediately, if Parliament does vote for an extension on Thursday, Britain’s request will have to be approved by all 27 other European Union nations at a summit meeting in Brussels next week. The trouble then is that those nations might want an explanation for why Britain needs the request and what it proposes to do with the extra time.
“Before the E.U. member states agree to extend the Brexit process they will want the British government to explain how much time it needs and what it plans to achieve with this extension,” wrote Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska of the Center for European Reform, a research institute based in London.
Last month the French president, Emmanuel Macron, made it clear that this was not a completely done deal. “We could examine a request for an extension, if it is justified by new choices by the British,” he said, before adding that there were “no circumstances” in which a delay would be granted without some idea of the objective to be pursued.
Mr. Fritz-Vannahme said there is a desire to be flexible in Brussels, but visible frustration with the Brexit debacle.
“The majority is fed up with the whole bizarre show we have been watching at Westminster now for two years,” he said, “As the French put it, it’s the ridicule that kills. Where is the ‘mother of Parliaments?’ There are just factions and personal interests.”
There is, however, still enough sympathy for the British and Mr. Fritz-Vannahme said he has little doubt that the bloc will grant a short delay of two or three months, while waiting to see what happens in London.