Britain's battle over Brexit resumes ahead of big vote

Wednesday, January 09, 2019

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LONDON, United Kingdom (AFP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday she was seeking further EU Brexit assurances in a bid to persuade MPs to back her unpopular deal in a crucial vote next week, while the bloc repeated it would not renegotiate.

Parliament returned from its Christmas break ready to resume debating the withdrawal deal struck in November, before a vote in the House of Commons next week, possibly on January 15.

May postponed the vote last month because of intense opposition to the agreement from MPs, but there is little sign yet of the clarifications she promised to secure from EU leaders.

The stakes could hardly be higher as the clock ticks down to Brexit on March 29, when Britain, the world's fifth-biggest economy, splits from its main trading partner.

“We are continuing to work on further assurances, on further undertakings from the European Union,” May said after talks with the Dutch, French, German, Spanish and EU leaders over the holidays.

A government source said these assurances may not be ready before MPs resume debating the Brexit deal on Wednesday, but are expected by the time of the vote.

However Margaritis Schinas, the spokesman for the European Commission, said: “There are no negotiations, because all we have on the table is what we consider given, acquired and approved.”

He added: “We must await events, the ratification process on the British side.”

The Brexit deal took nearly two years to negotiate and only covers separation issues, leaving open the future relationship, but it has provoked anger on all sides in London.

May survived a confidence vote in her own party over the agreement in December, but her Brexit-backing MPs are still in open revolt, while the opposition Labour party is angling for new elections.

NO DEAL PLANNING

May warned on Sunday that rejecting her deal next week would put Britain “in uncharted territory”.

Labour, wants to renegotiate the agreement, but some Brexit supporters say there is nothing to be feared from leaving the EU with no deal at all.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said Monday a no-deal scenario was actually the “closest to what people voted for” in the 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.

But many disagree, and 209 MPs from all parties have written to May urging her “to agree a mechanism that would ensure a 'no-deal' Brexit could not take place”.

May met Conservative MPs over private drinks on Monday to try to sway waverers, and one of her Brexit ministers insisted the vote could still be won. The are to meet again today.

“A week is a very long time in politics. We don't know what the numbers are,” Kwasi Kwarteng told BBC radio.

The arm twisting will be accompanied by a new government campaign designed to prepare Britons for the full impact of a disruptive no-deal scenario.

On Monday, authorities also staged an exercise for easing congestion in Channel crossings in case of new trade barriers with the EU, using an airfield to hold lorries near Dover.

But it drew criticism for only involving 89 trucks and haulage companies said it was “too little too late”.

Currently around 10,000 heavy goods vehicles arrive every day at the port.

TOXIC BACKSTOP

To allay concerns over her deal, May has promised to seek “political and legal reassurances” from the EU over the use of a temporary arrangement designed to keep open the border with Ireland after Brexit.

Many Conservatives, and Northern Ireland's tiny Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that props up May's government, fear the so-called backstop will keep Britain indefinitely tied to the EU's single market rules.

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said Sunday: “The backstop remains the poison which makes any vote for the withdrawal agreement so toxic.”

May is making a fresh effort to persuade EU leaders to accept a time limit on the backstop, which would currently come into effect after the post-Brexit transition period and last until a new trade deal is agreed.

May's proposal would see both sides adopt a target for agreeing the new trade arrangements, possibly December 2021. However, this was rejected by EU leaders when she floated it at a summit last month.

The government is also looking at giving parliament a bigger say in a new round of trade talks with Brussels, due to start immediately after March 29.


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