UK says ‘legally binding changes’ to Brexit deal agreed with EU

Published March 12, 2019, 7:22 AM

by Patrick Garcia

By Agence France-Presse

The British government said on Monday it had agreed “legally binding changes” to its Brexit deal with the European Union ahead of a crunch vote in the UK parliament.

 British Prime Minister Theresa May met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to try to salvage their Brexit deal (POOL/AFP / VINCENT KESSLER/ MANILA BULLETIN)

British Prime Minister Theresa May met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to try to salvage their Brexit deal (POOL/AFP / VINCENT KESSLER/ MANILA BULLETIN)

The announcement came as Prime Minister Theresa May met in Strasbourg with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker in a last-ditch attempt to salvage their Brexit deal ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

David Lidington, May’s de facto deputy, told parliament that while talks were still ongoing, the British leader had “secured legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and political declaration”.

UK lawmakers will study the new proposals before holding their vote with just 17 days remaining before Britain’s planned split from the bloc after 46 years.

Britain’s House of Commons overwhelmingly defeated the deal in January and was expected to do so again on Tuesday without meaningful change.

Ahead of the vote, the British pound see-sawed as traders jockeyed for position, initially dropping in Asia but then bouncing back in the European day.

– ‘Incompetence or contempt?’ –
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.

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.

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.

 ‘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.