LONDON: Former British prime minister Tony Blair made a strong pitch Friday for a fresh Brexit referendum to break the current deadlock over a controversial Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union (EU).
The former Labour Party leader's speech in London came as it emerged that Prime Minister Theresa May had failed to secure any concessions from EU leaders at a European Council summit in Brussels, which would have made the agreement more palatable to a deeply divided House of Commons and clear a crucial parliamentary vote.
"Europe should prepare for the possibility, now morphing into the near probability, that Britain will require an extension of time to the Article 50 process, either to negotiate further or more likely to conduct a new referendum," said Blair, who has emerged as one of the leading campaigners in favour of a "People's Vote" or a second chance for the British public to vote on Britain's membership of the EU.
The People's Vote campaign is of the view that a lot has changed since the June 2016 referendum in favour of leaving the economic bloc.
With more details of Brexit now on the table and exit arrangements in disarray, there are growing calls to go back to the electorate over the issue and bypass the risk of a chaotic no-deal exit from the 28-member bloc on Brexit Day March 29, 2019.
"We are now entering a new phase of Brexit. The government has lost the initiative.
Parliament has taken it. We know the options for Brexit. Parliament will have to decide on one of them.
If Parliament can't, then it should decide to go back to the people," Blair said.
"Things do not need to be like this. We have free will. It is past time to exercise it. Brexit is not some form of natural disaster, Brexit is man-made," he said.
The former premier believes Britain's Brexit crisis also affects the EU and urged the remaining 27 member-countries to make clear they still want the UK to stay in union not only for the UK's sake but also for theirs.
May remains firmly opposed to the prospect of a second referendum, insisting that the people have given their verdict on the matter and it is up to the current government to "deliver the Brexit" that the people voted for in June 2016.
She had dashed to Brussels on Thursday, a day after surviving an attempted coup by her Conservative Party MPs, to make a plea for further assurances from EU leaders after delaying a Commons vote on the Withdrawal Agreement.
After she won a confidence vote brought by her MPs, she vowed to listen to the concerns of the 37 per cent of Tory MPs who voted against her.
The central concern remains about a controversial "backstop" plan aimed at keeping an open border between the UK territory of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, which critics say would keep Britain tied to EU rules indefinitely and curb its ability to strike trade deals.
"There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal so with the right assurances this deal can be passed.
Indeed, it is the only deal capable of getting through my Parliament," said a statement released by Downing Street in reference to what May would be saying to EU leaders.
May has been working hard to convince EU leaders to work with her to "change the perception" of the controversial backstop plan.
However, reports from Brussels indicate that she has met with very little success on the matter.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker urged the UK to set out more clearly what it wants, adding that the European Commission will publish information on December 19 on its preparations, should the UK leave the EU without a deal in place.
"Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want, and so we would like within a few weeks our UK friends to set out their expectations for us, because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise and I would like clarifications," he said.
European Council president Donald Tusk also stressed that the Withdrawal Agreement was "not open for renegotiation".
But speaking after the Brussels summit, he called the backstop "an insurance policy," saying it was the EU's "firm determination" to work "speedily" on alternative arrangements.
Tusk said the backstop would "apply temporarily unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that the hard border is avoided".
The assurance is unlikely to convince British MPs, who must vote the deal through Parliament for it to go ahead.
Downing Street has confirmed MPs will now vote on May's deal "as soon as possible in January", after MPs return from their Christmas recess.