British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to hold talks with leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, in an effort to break the Brexit deadlock, has received a cautious welcome from EU officials, who have warned that the UK will still have to pass the withdrawal agreement by April 12 if it wants a deadline extension that would involve a no-deal crashout. 

A new political battle has also erupted in the Conservative Party as one minister resigned and some expressed their outrage at the decision to engage with the Labour Party, which they warned would shift Britain towards a softer Brexit. 

Corbyn, who welcomed the offer of talks, has said the party will continue to push for a customs union with the EU, strong guarantees around workers and consumer rights, and environmental protections in line with EU standards.

Corbyn said the Prime Minister’s plan would provide an opportunity for Parliament to vote on proposals to avoid a no-deal Brexit and give “security and certainty” to the public. Labour’s proposals centre on being part of a customs union with the EU and introducing protections for workers, and consumers as well as environmental protections. 

Legal difficulties

However, the May plan has also divided Labour supporters, amid indications that the party would not push for a confirmatory public vote if its conditions were to be adhered to.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the developments in the UK meant they had a “few more days.” “If the United Kingdom is in a position to approve the Withdrawal Agreement with a sustainable majority by 12 April, the European Union should be prepared to accept a delay until 22 May,” he told the European Parliament on Thursday. “Britain has been keen to avoid an extension beyond May 22 because this would pose legal and logistical difficulties relating to European Parliamentary elections due to take place on May 23. 

However, the withdrawal agreement would have to be approved by the House of Commons by April 12. “If it has not done so by then, no further short extension will be possible. After 12 April, we risk jeopardising the European Parliament elections, and so threaten the functioning of the European Union.”

The British government has insisted it has been left with little choice but to reach out to Labour after Conservatives and their partners, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, insisted they could never support May’s deal in its current manifestation. 

Their concerns centre around the backstop that would put the UK in a customs union with the EU were negotiations on future relations to break down, in order to prevent a “hard” border developing on the island of Ireland. 

Even the government’s legal adviser has acknowledged that there is no mechanism for the UK to exit the backstop unilaterally. “It is the remorseless logic of not backing the Prime Minister’s deal,” Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC on Wednesday morning.

“It is very disappointing that the Cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party,” said Boris Johnson, former Foreign Secretary and hard Brexiteer. “It now seems all too likely that British trade policy and key law-making powers will be handed over to Brussels — with no say for the UK,” he added, insisting that there were no circumstances in which he could support being part of a customs union with the EU. Johnson, who had twice voted against May’s withdrawal deal because of the Irish backstop arrangement in it, supported the deal last Friday after May said she would step down to make way for a successor in time for the next phase of negotiations if her deal were agreed to. He was not alone as other MPs pushing for a “hard” Brexit lambasted the decision to open talks with Corbyn, with one — Jacob Rees-Mogg — describing him as a “known Marxist.” Nigel Adams, Minister for Wales, resigned from the government, accusing May of making a “grave error.”

The DUP also attacked the decision to engage with Labour, accusing the government of “subcontracting the future of Brexit” to a man whom the Conservatives had “demonised for four years.”

Series of alternatives

The customs union solution would solve the hard border risk in Northern Ireland, and would be welcomed by businesses through the avoidance of the tariff issue. 

However, Brexiteers believe it would not amount to the Brexit that had been promised to people in the referendum because it would not leave Britain free to make its own trade deals with the rest of the world on its own terms.

Nevertheless, the customs union deal came the closest to commanding a parliamentary majority in a series of indicative votes on alternative Brexit options earlier this week. It lost by just three votes. 

May has now indicated that should Labour and the government fail to come up with a solution, they would put a series of alternatives to Parliament which could then be voted on. “The government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House,’ she said on Tuesday evening following a lengthy cabinet meeting that spanned seven hours.