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World May hits roadblocks in Brussels in bid to modify Brexit deal with EU

British prime minister Theresa May arrives on Dec. 13, 2018 in Brussels for a European Summit aimed at discussing the Brexit deal, the long-term budget and the single market.

LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP/Getty Images

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s effort to modify her Brexit deal with the European Union has run into roadblocks in Brussels, making it even less likely the pact will get U.K. parliamentary approval.

Ms. May travelled to Brussels on Thursday for a summit of EU leaders and she urged them to change the Brexit agreement to help get it through the House of Commons. But, as the day progressed, it became clear the other leaders were willing to go only so far. Many expressed support for some kind of clarification to the agreement, but they stopped short of committing to major changes. “We cannot reopen a legal agreement, we can’t renegotiate something which has been negotiated over several months,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.

Most of the criticism of the Brexit deal in Britain concerns the backstop provision which guarantees an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. By the end of Thursday, the EU Council, which represents the leaders, had drafted a statement promising to provide reassurances for how the backstop provision work. For now though there are few details and it’s not clear those reassurances will be enough for Ms. May’s critics.

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The EU could opt for a type of “interpretive instrument” that was used to bring the Belgian province of Wallonia onside during ratification of the Canada-EU trade deal in 2016. At the time, the Walloon parliament refused to give its consent to enable Belgium to ratify the agreement because of concerns Walloon politicians had about several issues including how disputes would be resolved. Wallonia only agreed after Canada and the EU signed a “Joint Interpretative Instrument,” which provided a binding interpretation of the deal to address the issues.

That kind of instrument might not go far enough to satisfy critics of the backstop. Under the Brexit agreement, the backstop kicks in if the United Kingdom and EU cannot negotiate a broader agreement on trade during a transition period which begins when the U.K formally leaves on March 29. Once the backstop has been triggered, the U.K. would remain in a customs arrangement with the EU, to allow the free flow of goods, and Northern Ireland would have even closer ties to ensure there was no hard border with Ireland.

Many British Tory MPs complain the backstop has no time limit and cannot be unilaterally revoked by the United Kingdom. They argue that it undermines the country’s sovereignty and nullifies the purpose of leaving the EU. Ms. May has insisted the backstop would only remain in place while talks continued and that, once a trade deal was signed, the provision would be dropped. But her critics fear the EU would drag on the negotiations and effectively lock the U.K. into the arrangement. They want the backstop either scrapped or modified so that the U.K. can pull out.

In its statement Thursday, the EU Council offered hints of an interpretive instrument by indicating the backstop was only an “insurance policy” to avoid a hard border with Ireland and that it was meant to be temporary. Leaders have also pledged to keep working with Ms. May on a solution.

But getting support in the House of Commons for anything that isn’t legally binding will be almost impossible. Ms. May’s Conservative Party doesn’t hold a majority of seats and her caucus is bitterly divided. The Prime Minister held off a challenge to her leadership on Wednesday by winning a vote of confidence held among Tory MPs. But the victory wasn’t overwhelming and one-third of Tory MPs voted against her. Meanwhile, a group of opposition MPs is plotting moves to bring down the government unless the Brexit deal is radically changed.

For now Ms. May’s strategy appears to be to negotiate and delay. She deferred a vote on the deal in the House of Commons this week because it was certain to be rejected. And while she has promised to return with a modified deal before Jan. 21, a firm date hasn’t been set.

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