Theresa May rushes to Strasbourg to find a deal as Brexit crunch looms

Reuters London, UK Mar 11, 2019, 11.37 PM(IST)

Theresa May. Photograph:( Reuters )

Story highlights

Just 18 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, there is still no ratified divorce deal and talks with the bloc stalled over the weekend as May felt she was unable to break the political deadlock in London.

British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to seek concessions from the European Union in a last-ditch attempt to avoid another humiliating defeat in the parliament of her deal to exit the bloc.

Just 18 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, there is still no ratified divorce deal and talks with the bloc stalled over the weekend as May felt she was unable to break the political deadlock in London.

In a day of frenetic diplomacy ahead of a Tuesday parliamentary vote on her deal, May spoke to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in an effort to find a way through the Brexit maze.

May, who rejected a Brexit compromise hashed out in Brussels on Saturday, left for Strasbourg on Monday.

"Please don’t assume this points to a deal," a British official said. "It means there is the basis for a further face to face discussion as part of the talks."

May's spokesman said a "meaningful" parliamentary vote on her deal would go ahead, even though talks with the EU are deadlocked, and the motion to be voted on would be published later on Monday.

European officials expressed frustration with May's attempts to secure concessions with so little time left before Britain is due to leave on March 29.

The British parliament voted to reject May's deal in January by 230 votes, the biggest margin of defeat in modern British history. She has promised a new vote on Tuesday, hoping to deliver last-minute changes that would win over lawmakers.

If she loses that vote, she has promised to allow lawmakers further votes on whether to leave with no deal at all, or whether to ask for a delay in the deadline.

EU ambassadors were told by the bloc's Brexit negotiators that a possible compromise was on the table but May was unable to convince her ministers so she turned it down.

Sterling see-sawed on Brexit news, falling in early trade on speculation that May could cancel the vote in parliament, but later surged on news that May would travel to Strasbourg and could have a deal. It was trading at $1.3140 at 1500 GMT.

The United Kingdom’s tortuous crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an extraordinary array of outcomes still possible, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum. The country voted to leave the EU in a 2016 plebiscite.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear, though Brexit will define the United Kingdom's prosperity for generations to come.

Brexit in peril?

May hopes to secure changes to the so-called Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Many British lawmakers object to the backstop on the grounds that it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely or cleave Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The EU has repeatedly said it does not want to reopen the divorce deal, and the British government's top lawyer has failed to find a legal fix.

"We're very clear that the Withdrawal Agreement can't change but we want to try to be helpful in terms of providing the clarity and reassurance that's needed in Westminster that the backstop is intended to be temporary," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said. "No one is looking to trap anyone anywhere."

In Brussels, diplomats and officials said Britain would face EU demands for billions of euros in cash if it fails to strike a Brexit deal.

With no major changes yet secured, Brexit-supporting lawmakers said May's deal would be defeated again on Tuesday.

"We will essentially be voting on exactly the same Withdrawal Agreement that we voted on last time and in very simple terms: if you ask the same question you are likely to get pretty much the same answer," said Mark Francois, a pro-Brexit lawmaker in May's Conservative Party.

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish group that props up May's minority government, and Steve Baker, a leading figure in the eurosceptic faction of her Conservative Party, said she was heading for defeat.

Yvette Cooper, an opposition Labour Party lawmaker who has led efforts to hand parliament more control over Brexit, said parliament would try to take control of the exit process if May was unable to build a consensus.