As talks reach ‘crucial stage’, UK leader asks MPs to be patient in order to deliver Brexit by March 29 deadline.
London, United Kingdom – British Prime Minister Theresa May sought to buy more time to achieve a Brexit deal with the European Union in a statement to MPs on Tuesday.
Just 45 days to the March 29 Brexit deadline, the prime minister asked for support in her bid to seek changes to the Irish backstop in a vote on Thursday.
The prime minister also said that if there is no deal by February 26, the government will make a statement on that day and table another amendable motion for MPs to vote on the following day.
“The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this house requires and deliver Brexit on time,” May said in her statement at the House of Commons.
Britain and the EU agreed last week to hold further talks by the end of the month in an attempt to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
May is seeking changes to the backstop, the backup mechanism contained in the withdrawal agreement to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland, after MPs asked her to go back to Brussels to renegotiate it in a vote late last month.
The EU has remained adamant that no changes would be made to the withdrawal agreement, which together with the political declaration is part of the deal the two sides negotiated over 18 painstaking months.
On January 15, MPs voted it down by 432 votes to 202 in an historic defeat for the prime minister, brought about by opposition to the backstop from within May’s own party.
Eurosceptic Conservative MPs see the backstop as a way of tying the UK to the EU’s trade rules indefinitely.
A working group comprised of both pro and anti-Brexit Conservative MPs has been discussing possible alternatives.
Benjamin Martill, Dahrendorf Forum post-doctoral fellow at LSE
May also ruled out the idea of a customs union, which is one of the Labour Party’s five demands for Brexit, set out by its leader Jeremy Corbyn in a letter to the prime minister last week.
Labour’s demands include a permanent, UK-wide customs union with the EU, close alignment with the single market, guarantees on the protection of workers’ rights, participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, and more guarantees on security arrangements.
Her statement on Tuesday reiterated she was not willing to budge on her red lines, arguing that a customs union would prevent the UK from having its own independent trade policy, and that it would be “a less desirable outcome than that which is provided for in the political declaration.”
According to Benjamin Martill, a Dahrendorf Forum post-doctoral fellow at the London School of Economics researching UK-EU relations, Corbyn has positioned Labour as the “party of the customs union” partly because “it’s a good halfway position” that would gather support from some of those opposed to Brexit who would see it as a better option than May’s plan, and partly “because it crosses the Conservative party’s red lines.”
“Of course, Labour want power, they don’t want to be associated with helping May get her Brexit deal through,” Martill argued, adding that Corbyn’s customs union requirements are “a way of making sure the Tories can’t come around to that position. It’s possibly not surprising that May is not willing to go that far.”
Corbyn faces pressure from some of his own MPs, who want him to push for a second referendum.
But Labour MP Lisa Nandy told the BBC on Monday that 40 to 60 of her colleagues were “actively looking for ways to support” a revised Brexit deal if the prime minister got “serious” about a customs unions and legislation to protect workers’ rights.
In the past, Corbyn repeatedly called for a general election should the prime minister fail to get a deal approved by Parliament.
Meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said on Monday the bloc was “waiting for clarity and movement from the United Kingdom” as negotiations continued in Brussels.
The EU has ruled out reopening the withdrawal agreement but signalled that changes might be possible to the political declaration that sketches out the UK’s future relationship.
The UK’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) said on Monday that the economy has seen its weakest growth rate in six years amid Brexit uncertainty and a global economic slowdown.
Business leaders have argued that a no-deal Brexit would spell disaster for the UK’s economy.
“[May] really is hoping to run down the clock,” Martill said, “and I don’t think it is unreasonable to think that when the withdrawal agreement comes back to Parliament, it will get much more support than it did last time.”
There is however still a political impasse, said Martill, adding that while both parties were playing strategically, “it’s quite unlikely to see where all the support for the withdrawal agreement is going to come from.”
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