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Uncertainty continues as May attempts to renegotiate Brexit

Vidya Ram London | Updated on January 30, 2019

Theresa May, UK Prime Minister   -  ADRIAN DENNIS

EU insists withdrawal agreement is not open for discussion

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said she will return to talks with the EU, and attempt to renegotiate Britain’s withdrawal agreement, after MPs narrowly voted to endorse a plan to renegotiate the controversial Irish backstop contained within it.

However, with the EU firmly insisting that the withdrawal agreement is not open for negotiation, the path ahead remains unclear. The Labour Party has also agreed to hold talks with the government over Brexit after MPs supported a non-binding resolution that opposes Britain leaving the EU without a deal, even as one resolution that would have given Parliament the means to rule out no-deal was rejected. May has insisted that crashing out without a deal remains on the table.

The developments came in a series of amendments to May’s withdrawal plans on Tuesday evening as MPs have sought to break the political impasse over the direction of Brexit, after voting by a substantial majority earlier this month to reject her deal as it stood.

Backbench amendment

The key victory for the government came in support for an amendment by Sir Graham Brady, who heads the Conservative Party’s 1922 backbench committee. The amendment calls for an alternative to the Irish backstop or insurance scheme that has been at the heart of some Conservative and all Democratic Unionist Party opposition to the deal. The backbench amendment, which calls on the government to return to the negotiating table with the EU and exact substantive changes, was backed by the government in the end and won by 317 to 301 following an afternoon of heated debate.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, May said that Parliament — in calling for her to return to talks and renegotiate the backstop — had done what the EU had consistently asked for, which was to indicate what it wanted, rather than what it did not. Among the options being considered by the UK was pushing for the backstop to include a unilateral exit mechanism or a time limit. The backstop is effectively an insurance policy in the agreement to prevent the development of a hard border in Northern Ireland should talks on future relations break down, and if entered into would put Northern Ireland into a customs partnership with Ireland, which cannot be ended unilaterally by the UK.

Following the vote, the European Council President Donald Tusk insisted that the withdrawal agreement “is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom,” and that the backstop and withdrawal agreement were not open for renegotiation. A similar response came from the Irish government, while the German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass said Germany and the EU would stand by Ireland on the backstop. “We will not allow Ireland to be isolated on the issue.”

However, hard Brexit supporters remained adamant that change was possible. When it came to the EU, amending the backstop was “no skin off their nose,” former Foreign Secretary and arch Brexiteer Boris Johnson told the BBC.

‘No-deal’

While the government won on the crucial Brady amendment it suffered a significant defeat when an amendment by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman was passed by the House, stating that Britain would not leave without a deal.

While the vote is non-binding it is seen as an indication of Parliament’s determination to act in the future to prevent such a scenario unfolding. However, it does not take no-deal off the table. An amendment by Labour MP Yvette Cooper that would have delayed Brexit by three months if no plan was agreed by the end of February — effectively providing the means for MPs to rule out no deal — was defeated.

Published on January 30, 2019

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