British Prime Minister Theresa May is hoping to tweak her failed Brexit deal with the European Union in order to woo skeptical parliamentarians poised to wrest control over the Brexit process while the government flounders. But she’s facing long odds and EU officials have already said they won’t agree to changes.
Ms. May has been struggling to come up with a new Brexit strategy ever since her deal with the EU was soundly rejected by parliamentarians last week by an overwhelming 230-vote margin. That has put Brexit in chaos with just more than two months to go before Britain leaves the EU on March 29.
On Monday, Ms. May was expected to outline her “Plan B.” Instead, she told MPs that she will consult them on changes to the deal that could win over opponents, particularly concerning the future of the Irish border. She will then take those proposals back to the EU. However, she quickly dismissed calls from some MPs to delay to Brexit or hold a second referendum. A delay would only defer the decision-making, she said, and another referendum “could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy.” She added that “my focus continues to be on what is needed to secure the support of this House in favour of a Brexit deal with the EU.”
Ms. May acknowledged that the biggest obstacle to her deal was what’s known as the backstop; a provision in the withdrawal agreement that guarantees the Irish border will remain open by tying Northern Ireland closely to the EU while the United Kingdom and EU negotiated a comprehensive trade deal. The Democratic Unionist Party, which is propping up the government, has said it would pull its support if Ms. May strikes any deal that would treat Northern Ireland differently. Other MPs argue the backstop could keep the U.K. linked to the EU indefinitely, which they say defeats the purpose of Brexit. They want the backstop either scrapped or time limited. Ms. May didn’t offer any proposals on Monday, but she said she planned to keep discussing ideas with MPs.
It’s hard to see how changes to the backstop are possible. Ms. May has already received written assurances from the EU that the backstop would be temporary and only put in place if trade talks dragged on longer than four years. That hasn’t satisfied dozens of MPs who want legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to weaken the backstop or remove it. Many of Ms. May’s fellow Conservative Party MPs reiterated that position on Monday, demanding that she return to Brussels to renegotiate the agreement. However, EU officials have insisted that the agreement cannot be reopened.
"The withdrawal agreement with all its dimensions, including the backstop, is the best deal possible,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters on Monday. Ms. May also rejected reports that she may try to reopen the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended years of sectarian violence over Northern Ireland and eliminated border controls, in order to reach a separate deal with Ireland that could avoid the need for the backstop. “I have never even considered doing so – and neither would I,” she said.
The only real proposal that surfaced on Monday came from Poland’s Foreign Minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, who suggested limiting the backstop to five years. But that too was quickly shot down. "Putting a time limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it’s not a backstop at all,” said Ireland’s Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney.
While Ms. May scrambles to figure out a way forward, groups of MPs have begun making moves to take over the Brexit process. One group plans to introduce a motion this week to ask the EU to extend the March 29 deadline if it was clear Parliament couldn’t agree on a Brexit deal by the end of February. Another group is manoeuvring for MPs to vote on a series of options including a second referendum or a Norway-style arrangement that would see Britain leave most of the EU’s institutions but remain in the single market, which allows for the free movement of people, goods and services. MPs will vote on the motions next week and if one or more pass, Ms. May could lose control over Brexit.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn has also called on Ms. May to rule out leaving the EU without a deal. On Monday, he said Ms. May had not come to terms with the scale of the defeat of her Brexit deal last week. “This really does feel a bit like Groundhog Day,” he told MPs.
The Prime Minister also got an earful on Monday from some Tories who support a second referendum. “I’m sorry, but this just isn’t good enough,” said Tory MP Anna Soubry, referring to Ms. May’s plan. “This House has spoken, it has overwhelmingly rejected her deal." She added that Ms. May was turning Britain “into a laughingstock.”