Britain's battle over Brexit resumes ahead of big vote

Alice Ritchie, Agence France-Presse

Posted at Jan 08 2019 08:11 AM

Britain's battle over Brexit resumes ahead of big vote 1
Demonstrators hold EU and Union flags during an anti-Brexit protest opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, December 17, 2018. Toby Melville, Reuters

LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May came under pressure Monday to explain what further assurances she can secure from the EU before MPs vote on her unpopular Brexit deal next week, after the bloc repeated it would not renegotiate the text.

With Brexit looming on March 29, opposition Labor leader Jeremy Corbyn accused May of "running down the clock in an attempt to blackmail" parliament into supporting her withdrawal deal.

The House of Commons returned from its Christmas break ready to resume debating the withdrawal deal struck with the EU in November, before voting on it next week, possibly on January 15.

May postponed the vote last month because of intense opposition from MPs, promising further clarifications from Brussels.

But after an EU summit in December, and talks with the Dutch, French, German, Spanish and EU leaders in recent days, she admitted these are still proving elusive.

"We are continuing to work on further assurances, on further undertakings from the European Union," she told reporters.

A government source conceded these may not be secured before MPs resume debating the Brexit deal on Wednesday.

In Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas repeated that the Brexit deal would not be reopened.

"There are no negotiations, because all we have on the table is what we consider given, acquired and approved," he said.

There are concerns in Westminster that without any breakthrough in Brussels, May could delay the vote again, bringing Britain closer to leaving the EU with no agreement in place.


The Brexit deal took nearly 2 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 Conservative party over the agreement in December, but her Brexit-backing MPs are still in open revolt.

Labor says it would renegotiate the deal, and is angling for new elections.

The prime minister warned on Sunday that rejecting her deal would put Britain "in uncharted territory".

Her spokesman denied Monday that the government could delay Brexit, after junior minister Margot James said that this might be necessary to avoid Britain leaving without no deal.

Some Brexit supporters say there is nothing to be feared from this.

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

But many disagree, and more than 200 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 was due to meet Conservative MPs over private drinks this week to try to sway waverers, and one minister insisted the vote next week could still be won.

"A week is a very long time in politics," junior Brexit minister Kwasi Kwarteng told BBC radio.

The government will on Tuesday launch a new radio and social media advertising campaign designed to prepare Britons for the full impact of no deal.

On Monday, the authorities 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 dismissed it as "too little too late". Currently around 10,000 heavy goods vehicles arrive every day at the port.


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

Her proposal would see both sides adopt a December 2021 target for agreeing the new trade arrangements. However, this was rejected by EU leaders at a December summit.

The government is also looking at giving parliament a bigger say in a new round of trade talks with Brussels.