LONDON – British Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on Wednesday she would deliver Brexit on the date established with the European Union despite a flurry of rumors in the media that she was considering extending negotiations with the bloc in a bid to avoid a no-deal exit.
May told lawmakers in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of parliament, that she planned to press on with plans to pull the UK from the EU on March 29, the date established by the two-year negotiation period launched when May triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty officially notifying Brussels of London’s departure.
“We triggered Article 50, in fact, this House voted to trigger Article 50,” said May, who leads a Conservative Party minority government in the chamber. “That had a two-year timeline, that ends on March 29, we want to leave with a deal and that is what we are working for.”
May was reiterating remarks made earlier by her Brexit secretary Stephan Barclay after the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins was apparently overheard in a Brussels bar saying PM Theresa May would ask lawmakers to vote on whether they wanted to extend the negotiation period.
In a recording published by ITV news, civil servant Robbins appeared to say the PM would in March give Members of Parliament in the House of Commons, the lower chamber of UK lawmaking, a choice to either back her withdrawal deal, which has struggled to make it through the Commons, or to extend Article 50.
May said MPs should not rely on news based on “what someone said to someone else as overheard by someone else in a bar.”
May’s withdrawal deal, the result of over 18 months of negotiations with the EU, became lodged in the Commons after lawmakers first of all rejected it by a historical margin last month then later passed an amendment to find legally-binding changes to the Irish backstop insurance policy on the open border in Ireland.
The backstop, one of the key pillars of the document, was rejected by right-wing Tories and the Democratic Unionist Party, the Northern Irish grouping that props up May’s minority government in the Commons. Both feared the terms and conditions of the policy was overly conciliatory and jeopardized UK sovereignty.
The clause is a safety net policy to ensure there is no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland should future talks with Brussels suddenly collapse.
Speaking from Dublin, Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, said he remained confident that London and Brussels could still arrive at a deal before the official Brexit date, which was rapidly drawing closer.
“As things stand, the UK will leave the EU on March 29, six weeks from now, with or without an agreement,” the Taoiseach said. “I believe we will strike a deal.”
May is due to present an amendable statement to the Commons on Thursday which will be followed on Feb. 26 should her withdrawal deal still not command a majority by that time.
Although the details of the statement had not yet been made public, hard-line members of the Tories were concerned the motion could rule out the possibility of a no-deal Brexit and have said they would vote against any such move.
In a Commons address Tuesday, May was adamant she could convince the EU to tweak the backstop, either by finding a so-called alternative arrangement, which the UK government was yet to specify, or by adding a fixed expiry date, or by granting the UK powers to unilaterally withdraw from it.
The opposition Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has accused the Tory leader of running down the clock on Brexit in a bid to get MPs to back her deal.
The EU has repeatedly warned that the withdrawal agreement would not be opened for further renegotiations – the bloc’s institutions and remaining members states have already signed off on it.
Ireland’s seamless border is not only the product of joint EU membership with the UK but also of an international peace deal that in 1998 brought relative calm to an at times ferocious civil conflict between warring paramilitaries in Northern Ireland.
Known as the Troubles, over 3,500 people died in the conflict, according to the University of Ulster’s online conflict archive.