European Union Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier speaks during a plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) in Brussels, Belgium, January 23, 2019. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir
Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator © Reuters

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned that Britain will crash out of the union without a deal in March unless a “positive majority” emerges in the House of Commons to prevent it.

Michel Barnier told an assembly of EU employers and trade union representatives in Brussels that a no-deal Brexit could still happen despite a majority of UK parliamentarians being against such a scenario.

“Opposing a no-deal will not stop a no-deal happening at the end of March,” Mr Barnier said on Wednesday. “To stop a no-deal, a positive majority . . . needs to emerge.”

Noting that there are only 65 days to go until the scheduled Brexit date on March 29, he said the EU should respect “the parliamentary debate which is still ongoing” in the UK.

“We hope sincerely that this process will be successful” in finding a solution, he said.

A cross-party group of British MPs has proposed legislation that would give MPs a vote on extending the formal Article 50 exit process, and so delaying the date of Brexit, if the House of Commons has not approved a deal by February 26.

The proposal is expected to be voted on next Tuesday, when it is expected to pass because of support from both the Labour opposition and pro-EU Conservatives. But the government of Theresa May, prime minister, opposes the measure.

Mr Barnier said that any British request to extend the Brexit talks would be met with tough questions from the EU27, which would want explanations on what the UK intends to do with the extra time.

“I do not know if this question of an extension will be posed, but it would be for the heads of state and government of the 27 to respond,” he said. “If this question is posed, they will ask the British government: to do what, what is the objective, and for how long?”

He also warned that any extension could not complicate the organisation of May’s European Parliament elections, which take place after March 29, the date when Brexit is scheduled to take place.

“An extension cannot disturb, on our side, the functioning of the EU institutions,” he said. Any extension is “for the time being theoretical”.

Mr Barnier rowed back from comments on Tuesday by the European Commission that had suggested a hard border would be reintroduced on the island of Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The comments raised hackles in Dublin, where the government insists that a hard border is unthinkable in any circumstances.

The EU will “demonstrate and express” solidarity with Ireland in a no-deal scenario, he said.

“The European Commission today has clearly clarified things, so that there is no misunderstanding,” he added, noting that “we all need to be careful what we say”.

Mr Barnier warned the UK that, while the EU was planning some contingency measures to limit the economic havoc caused by a no-deal outcome, this would be strictly unilateral.

The EU would not countenance negotiating “mini deals” with Britain in such a situation, he said.

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