UK Seeks Brexit Deal Changes, but EU Stands Firm

British PM Theresa May on Tuesday won a few weeks to salvage a Brexit deal but headed toward a clash with the EU.

4 min read
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain’s Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London.

British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday won a few weeks to salvage a Brexit deal but headed toward a clash with the European Union by promising to overhaul the divorce agreement she spent a year and a half negotiating with the bloc.

Trying to break the UK's Brexit deadlock, May got Parliament's backing for a bid to change an Irish border guarantee in the withdrawal deal — a provision May and the EU both approved, and which the bloc insists cannot be changed.

"It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal," she said, promising to "obtain legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement" from the EU.

The EU immediately ruled that out, insisting in a statement that the current deal with the UK remained the "best and only way" to achieve an orderly Brexit.

French President Emmanuel Macron said the agreement — 585 pages of legally binding text — “is the best accord possible. It is not re-negotiable.”

It was the latest disorienting chapter in a Brexit process that has grown increasingly surreal since Parliament rejected May's Brexit deal two weeks ago, leaving Britain lurching toward a cliff-edge “no-deal" departure from the bloc on 29 March.

A series of Commons votes Tuesday on next steps submitted by both pro-Brexit and pro-EU legislators ended up sending starkly mixed signals, as lawmakers backed a call to renegotiate the deal, and also approved a rival motion ruling out a no-deal exit.

May had urged lawmakers to “send an emphatic message” to the EU, but their response is likely to leave the bloc even more confused about British aims.

May believes her agreement can still win Parliament's backing if it is changed to alleviate concerns about the Irish border measure, known as the backstop.

The backstop would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU in order to remove the need for checks along the border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.

The border is crucial to the divorce deal because it will be the only land frontier between the UK and the EU after Brexit, and because the free flow of people and goods underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.

Opposition to the backstop by pro-Brexit lawmakers — who fear it will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU — helped sink May’s deal on 15 January, when Parliament rejected it in a 432 to 202 vote.

On Tuesday, Parliament backed, by 317 votes to 301 votes, a call for the border measure to be replaced by unspecified "alternative arrangements."

Leading Brexiteers praised the result. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Parliament had sent a "clear, unambiguous" message that the backstop had to be removed.

“I hope that our friends in Brussels will listen and that they will make that change.”
Boris Johnson, Former Foreign Secretary

But Green Party legislator Caroline Lucas, who wants a new referendum on Britain's EU membership accused May of chasing "heated-up fantasies that have already been rejected by the EU."

May acknowledged that the EU had "limited appetite" for changing the Brexit deal. But she vowed to go to Brussels and seek "significant and legally binding change" to the backstop. May's office said that might include an end date to ensure it is temporary or an exit clause for Britain. Both those ideas have been repeatedly rejected by the EU.


"There can be no change to the backstop," said Ireland's European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee.

“It was negotiated over 18 months with the UK and by the UK.”
Helen McEntee, Ireland’s European Affairs Minister

Lawmakers voted on seven Brexit proposals on Tuesday, including the border change supported by May and several measures that sought to rule out a "no-deal" Brexit.

Much of the business world says a no-deal Brexit would cause economic chaos by eliminating existing EU trade agreements and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the UK and the EU, its main export market.

Most members of the Parliament oppose leaving without a deal, but they rejected several proposals that tried to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government and give it to Parliament so lawmakers could stop Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. Some opposition Labour Party members sided with the government, worried about being seen as obstructing Brexit.

Lawmakers approved, by a narrow 318 votes to 310 votes, a motion ruling out a “no-deal” Brexit but not saying how that should be achieved. The vote is not legally binding, but has political force as an expression of the will of Parliament.

Tuesday's ambiguous votes won't mark the end of Britain's turmoil over Brexit: There could be a rerun in two weeks. May said if she has not struck a new Brexit deal by 13 February, Parliament would get to vote, again, on what should happen next.

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