British PM faces improbable task | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, January 31, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:08 AM, January 31, 2019

British PM faces improbable task

May wins mandate to reopen Brexit deal but EU says no to changes

British Prime Minister Theresa May pinned her hopes on persuading Brussels to rewrite the Brexit divorce deal but EU leaders insisted yesterday they would not budge.

Having comprehensively rejected the withdrawal agreement last month, MPs late Tuesday backed an amendment saying they would support the deal if its controversial "backstop" clause concerning the Irish border was removed.

Bolstered by the mandate from parliament, May made the decision to revisit a pact she herself sealed with the 27 EU leaders at a summit last month.

With Britain otherwise on course for a chaotic exit from the bloc on March 29, May admitted she faces a formidable challenge convincing Brussels to re-open an accord that took 18 excruciating months to conclude.

And there was no sign that European leaders were prepared to unpick the backstop in order to salvage the deal.

A spokesman for EU Council President Donald Tusk swiftly insisted the Brexit deal was "not open for renegotiation".

On Wednesday, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reiterated: "The position of the European Union is very clear".

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the Funke media group that the existing draft deal was "the best and only solution for an orderly exit".

"As (EU Council) president (Donald) Tusk said yesterday, we are not offering a renegotiation and renegotiation is not on the table. There is no grounds to organise an emergency summit," said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

The backstop insurance policy could legally lock the UK into EU trade rules indefinitely in order to keep the Irish border free-flowing.

Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the European Parliament's six-member Brexit steering group, said the backstop clause was "absolutely needed" and there was hardly room to change the deal.

Going further, Philippe Lamberts, who is on the group, told BBC radio that hard Brexiteers were "believing in a mirage".

"There will be a price to pay, but the calculus made on this side of the Channel is the price of hurting the integrity of the single market will be bigger, and if we have a choice to make between two evils, then no deal is the lesser evil," he said.

London stocks rose 0.6 percent in early trade and the pound rebounded slightly yesterday after suffering heavy losses on worries about a possible no-deal Brexit.

The amendment that May won calls for the backstop to be replaced with "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border" -- vague wording that did not pin May to any specific approach.

Britain's Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said "the dynamic did change" with the vote, but offered no specifics on what the alternative arrangements might involve, saying London was looking at technological solutions, time limits and exit clauses.

Elsewhere in Tuesday's votes, MPs also backed a non-binding measure that "rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement".

But they threw out another plan -- backed by EU supporters -- that would have tried to force through a Brexit delay if no new deal with the EU emerged by February 26.

"I agree that we should not leave without a deal. However, simply opposing no-deal is not enough to stop it," May told MPs.

She said parliament's approval of the backstop amendment gave her the "mandate" to "seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement".

May promised to give MPs a chance to vote on what happens next on February 14 should she fail to win a new agreement over the course of the next two weeks.

May was due to talk with Tusk and Varadkar, and face MPs in her weekly questions session in parliament later in the day.

Main opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn sat out cross-party Brexit talks ahead of the vote but will now meet May to discuss the way ahead.

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