Brexit hangs in balance as parliament to vote on May's tweaked deal

London (Mar 12)  The future of Britain’s exit from the European Union hung in the balance on Tuesday as members of parliament prepared to vote on a divorce deal after Prime Minister Theresa May won last-minute assurances from the European Union.

Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to agree “legally binding” assurances with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against her deal, were studying the assurances with lawyers. Geoffrey Cox, the government’s top lawyer, is due to give his opinion on Tuesday at 1230 GMT ahead of the vote due around 1900 GMT.

“We have secured legal changes,” May said in a late night news conference in Strasbourg beside Juncker, 17 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29.

May announced three documents - a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration - which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed with the EU in November.

She said the assurances created an arbitration channel for any disputes on the backstop, “entrenches in legally-binding form” existing commitments that it will be temporary and binds the UK and EU to starting work on replacing the backstop with other arrangements by December 2020.

In essence, the assurances give the United Kingdom a possible path out of the backstop through arbitration and underscore the EU’s repeated pledges that it does not want to trap the United Kingdom in the backstop.

After two-and-a-half years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this was the last chance for Britain. “It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.

Sterling rose on news of the deal but then gave up its gains by mid-morning and was trading $1.3163 at 1040 GMT.

If MPs vote down May’s deal, she has promised a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, then a vote on whether to ask the EU for a limited delay to Brexit.

The United Kingdom’s labyrinthine crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

BREXIT VOTE

Supporters of Brexit say while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable deeper EU integration without such a powerful reluctant member.

Brexit-supporting MPs in May’s party had accused her of botching the negotiations with Brussels.

Many Brexiteers fear the backstop, aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, could trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely.

One eurosceptic MP told Reuters he had seen nothing to change his opposition to the deal so far but that MPs were awaiting a legal analysis. Others questioned why the assurances were not included in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis welcomed the requirement to make alternative arrangements for the backstop, the date and the international arbitration, but said Cox’s opinion would be key.

“All those things together, make this just about, just about acceptable to me but it depends very, very heavily on a robust, clear response from Cox,” Davis told Talk Radio. “If Geoffrey Cox is at all equivocal about it then I think it will fall again.”

The immediate reaction was cautious from the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which props up May’s minority government.

DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC she was sympathetic to demands for a day’s delay to give time to study the assurances.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of a faction in May’s Conservative Party demanding a clean break from the EU, also said he was waiting for legal advice. “This has been desperately rushed,” he told the BBC. “I think it would be better to have the vote tomorrow when people had more mature consideration.”

The motion put forward by the government said the joint instrument “reduces the risk” that the United Kingdom would be trapped in the backstop.

If the backstop comes into force and talks on the future relationship break down, May said the unilateral declaration would make clear there was nothing to stop London from moving to leave the backstop.

Reuters

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