LONDON – As Brexit looms, British Prime Minister Theresa May urged restless lawmakers on Tuesday to be patient because her government needed more time in its ambitious endeavor to secure legally-binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that underpins the United Kingdom’s future partnership with the European Union once it has discontinued its membership.
May told the House of Commons, the lower chamber of lawmaking where MPs have thus far overwhelmingly rejected her deal, that her Conservative Party government would press on with its efforts to alter the withdrawal deal despite the fact that the EU, which has already signed off on it, has reiterated that it was not up for renegotiation.
“Having secured an agreement with the EU for further talks, we now need some time to complete that process,” May told the Commons. “When we achieve the progress we need, we will bring forward another meaningful vote,” she added.
The government would return to the Commons with an amendable statement on Feb. 27 if the deal did not command a majority by that time.
May’s last-ditch attempt to secure tangible legal changes to the document, seemingly against the odds, has raised fears among remain supporters and some opposition parties that a no-deal Brexit could become more likely.
“The talks are at a crucial stage. We now all need to hold our nerve to get the chances this House has required and deliver Brexit on time,” the leader of the Conservative Party’s minority government added.
Her plea for MPs to stay composed also came just two days before parliament was due to call nine days of recess; a break that members will now likely spend their offices as the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc, widely considered the biggest political challenge since World War II, draws rapidly closer with no concrete solution to the current impasse in sight.
The withdrawal deal became lodged in the Commons when several influential Tory MPs and the Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Irish group whose votes May depends on, took exception to the terms and conditions of the Irish backstop, a safety net policy to insure against a return to a hard border on the island of Ireland should future talks collapse.
The Conservative Party’s right-wing members feared the deal could keep the UK bound to EU rules indefinitely while the DUP said its constituents were opposed to any outcome that would see Belfast subjected to EU customs regulation not applicable to the rest of the UK.
In January, MPs therefore rejected May’s withdrawal deal by a historic margin and soon after passed an amendment requiring May to return to Brussels in search of the elusive legally-binding changes to the to the pact, an almost 600-page document designed to lay the foundations of the future UK-EU relationship.
May herself backed the amendment to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop. The EU has firmly and repeatedly said it would not renegotiate.
Those changes could include the aforementioned alternative arrangements, the details of which remained opaque, a legally-binding edit to grant the UK powers to unilaterally withdraw from the backstop or an expiration date for the mechanism, should it ever come into force.
“Given both sides agree we do not ever want to use the backstop, and if we did it would be temporary, we believe it is reasonable to ask legally binding changes to this effect,” May said.
May reiterated her refusal to entertain a proposal from the opposition Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn to keep the UK in a customs union with the EU, something the leader of the left-leaning shadow cabinet hoped would soften Brexit.
He took the occasion to ridicule the government’s handling of Brexit, which in the past he has described as a “shambles.”
“I usually thank the prime minister for an advanced copy of her statement, but it was handed to me just as I was leaving the office to come down here,” Corbyn said. “So I can only assume she entrusted it to the transport secretary to deliver it to me,” he added to laughter from his colleagues.
The butt of that joke, Chris Grayling, was currently in the UK media spotlight after canceling a multi-million-pound contract to a ferry company to fun freight between the Ramsgate and Ostend in Belgium to alleviate pressure from the Dover-Calais route in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
Seaborne Freight, it turned out, had no ships nor a history of running them. The terms and conditions of the contract had also been partially copied and pasted from a takeaway restaurant. Calls for his resignation rose when it transpired the department had already spent 800,000 pounds ($1.03 million) on consultations with the company.
Corbyn went on to add that May was trying to run down the clock by using excuses and delays in the Commons.
However, the real hurdle in the Brexit negotiations in the Commons continued to center on the Irish backstop.
Differing opinions on how to deal with the border, which will become the UK’s only land border with the EU after Brexit, brought about an impasse in the Commons.
Its current open status – free of border patrols as well as customs checks – is a result not only of joint EU membership but also an international peace deal that in 1998 helped bring an end to decades of civil violence between armed paramilitaries in a deadly period of unrest known as the Troubles, in which over 3,500 people were killed, according to Ulster University’s online conflict archive.
UK voters narrowly opted to leave the bloc in a June 2016 referendum.