LONDON — In a tentative first step toward ending months of political deadlock, British lawmakers voted Wednesday to block the country from leaving the European Union without a divorce agreement, currently due to take place on March 29.
Parliament is now scheduled to decide Thursday whether to put the brakes on Brexit, a vote set up after lawmakers dealt yet another defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May amid the crisis over Britain's departure from the E.U.
The lawmakers' 321-278 Wednesday vote has political but not legal force, and does not entirely rule out a chaotic "no-deal" departure for Britain. But it might ease jitters spreading across the E.U. after lawmakers resoundingly rejected May's divorce deal on Tuesday.
Exiting the E.U. without a deal could mean major disruptions for businesses and people in the U.K. and the 27 remaining E.U. countries.
Here's a look at what might happen in the days ahead.
A phalanx of pro-Brexit politicians supports a "no-deal" Brexit. They argue it would free the U.K. from E.U. rules and red tape, allowing the country to forge an independent global trade policy.
But many economists and businesses fear it would hammer the economy as tariffs and other trade barriers go up between Britain and the E.U., its biggest trading partner.
In the short term, there could be gridlock at British ports and shortages of fresh produce. In the long run, the government says a "no-deal" scenario would leave the economy 6 percent to 9 percent smaller over 15 years than remaining in the E.U.
The E.U. warned that Wednesday's vote in Parliament wasn't enough to stop a "no-deal" Brexit. By law, Britain will leave the E.U. on March 29, with or without a deal, unless it cancels Brexit or secures a delay.
DELAY, DELAY, DELAY
When lawmakers gave leaving the E.U. without an agreement a thumbs down on Wednesday night, they were left with one choice: seeking more time. A third vote scheduled for Thursday is on asking the E.U. to delay Brexit day by up to three months.
This option is likely to prove popular, since politicians on both sides of the Brexit debate fear time is running out to secure an orderly withdrawal by March 29.
Extending the timeframe for Brexit would require approval from all 27 remaining E.U. member countries. They have an opportunity to grand such a request at a March 21-22 summit in Brussels. But the rest of the E.U. is reluctant to postpone Brexit beyond the late May elections for the E.U.'s legislature, the European Parliament.
The E.U. said Tuesday that Britain needed to provide "a credible justification" for any delay.
Whatever Parliament decides Thursday, it won't end Britain's Brexit crisis. Both lawmakers and the public remain split between backers of a clean break from the E.U. and those who favor continuing a close relationship through a post-Brexit trade deal or by reversing the June 2016 decision to leave.
May is unwilling to abandon her hard-won Brexit agreement and might try to put it to Parliament a third time, although the latest margin of defeat makes that tricky.
Some lawmakers want her to have Parliament consider different forms of Brexit to see if there is a majority for any course of action.
These range from a proposal by pro-Europeans to adopt close ties with the E.U. after Brexit, remaining in its single market and customs union, to a Brexiteer plan to delay Brexit so that the country can plan better for a "no-deal" departure.
Some think the only way forward is a snap election that could rearrange the forces in Parliament and break the political deadlock. May has ruled that out, but could come to see it as her only option.
And anti-Brexit campaigners haven't abandoned efforts to secure a new referendum on whether to remain in the E.U. The government opposes the idea, which at the moment also lacks majority support in Parliament.
However, the political calculus could change if the paralysis drags on. The opposition Labour Party has said it would support a second referendum if other options were exhausted.