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May holds talks with EU chiefs in new bid for Brexit breakthrough

Monday, March 11, 2019

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STRASBOURG, France (AFP) — Prime Minister Theresa May began talks in Strasbourg with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker late Monday in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their Brexit deal on the eve of a crucial vote in the British parliament.

Her visit to the French city that hosts the European Parliament comes after British officials worked through the weekend to secure concessions from the European Union they hope will persuade MPs to back the text.

Juncker and the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier greeted May for the latest of many attempts to sweeten the divorce deal she sealed with them in November.

Britain's House of Commons overwhelmingly defeated the deal in January and without significant changes, it is expected to do so again in a vote on Tuesday evening.

The EU has rejected many of May's demands, which relate to the controversial backstop plan for the Irish border, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it had made an offer at the weekend.

- 'No deal would be catastrophe' -

Guy Verhofstadt, who oversees the negotiations for the European Parliament, said he and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani would meet later with May.

"I hope progress can be made, if it is possible, as a no deal #Brexit would be a catastrophe," Verhofstadt tweeted. "We will stand by Ireland & the need to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement,” he said, referring to the 1998 peace deal for Northern Ireland.

Another defeat in parliament could see Britain sever ties with its closest trading partner on March 29 with no new arrangements, causing huge disruption on both sides of the Channel.

It would also raise the possibility of postponing Brexit, after May promised to allow MPs a vote later this week on whether to accept a "no deal" scenario or request a short delay from the EU.

Hopes for a breakthrough in the talks looked slim earlier Monday, after Barnier said it was up to May and British MPs to find a compromise.

"We held talks over the weekend and the negotiations now are between the government in London and the parliament in London," he told AFP in Brussels.

- 'More legal clarity' -

But Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney then suggested May could visit Strasbourg, where the European Parliament is holding its plenary session this week, to "finalise an agreement, if that's possible".

In Berlin, Merkel said the EU had offered "a large number of proposals at the weekend" to provide "much more legal clarity" over the Irish backstop.

"We've made an important offer again towards Great Britain and now of course it's up to Great Britain to react to these offers," Merkel said in Berlin.

The late trip caused concern among MPs in London, who complained they may not have enough time to scrutinise any deal May agrees before being asked to vote on Tuesday.

"Is this incompetence or is this just contempt for parliament?" said opposition Labour MP Yvette Cooper. Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay is expected to update the Commons in London after the Strasbourg meetings.

- 'Harder to leave the backstop' -

May's deal was struck during more than a year of tough negotiations, and covers Britain's financial settlement, expatriate rights, the Irish border and plans for a transition period.

But MPs rejected it in January by a massive 432 votes to 202, with many of May's Conservatives rebelling against her.

The Commons later sent her back to renegotiate the backstop, an arrangement intended to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

This would keep Britain in the EU customs union and parts of its single market until and unless another way — such as a trade deal — is found to avoid frontier checks.

Many MPs fear it is a "trap" to keep them tied to EU rules, but Brussels has rejected calls for a time limit or unilateral exit clause.

"It is harder to leave the backstop than it is to leave the EU," Conservative MP Jacob Rees-Mogg said. May has promised Britain will leave the EU whatever happens on March 29, but many MPs fear that a "no deal" exit would wreak economic havoc.

In the face of a cabinet revolt, she promised that if her deal is defeated again then MPs will vote on "no deal" on Wednesday and then on Thursday, on delaying Brexit.

Any postponement would have to be approved by the leaders of the other 27 nations, who are next meeting at a Brussels summit on March 21-22 — a week before Brexit.

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