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Brexit: Theresa May wants to take her deal back to Brussels (again)

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 1/29/2019 William Booth, Karla Adam
British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the beggining of a debate in the House of Commons in London on Tuesday. © Ho/AFP/Getty Images British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks at the beggining of a debate in the House of Commons in London on Tuesday.

LONDON —Prime Minister Theresa May told her divided Parliament on Tuesday that she wants one more chance to go back to Brussels to reopen talks with European leaders on how Britain leaves the European Union.

May almost pleaded with members of her own Conservative Party to come together behind a common vision for Brexit, now just 60 days away.

“The world knows what this House does not want,” May told the raucous chamber. “Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want.”

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May faces deeply skeptical European leaders, who have grown weary with her delays and the inability to pass her government’s withdrawal agreement through Parliament.

The Europeans seem in no mood to grant May what she needs to pass her deal, which is a new way for Britain to guarantee that whenever else this chaotic Brexit yields, it will not mean a return of a hard border — with checkpoints, passport controls and customs inspectors — between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“We’re not going to reopen the agreement,” Sabine Weyand, the E.U.’s deputy negotiator, said at a European Policy Center event on Monday

The prime minister appeared before a House of Commons that is trying to wrest control of Brexit from her, as the clock ticks down toward Britain’s scheduled departure.

Members of Parliament will spend Tuesday debating and voting on cross-party amendments designed to steer the government one way or another on Brexit.

May’s initial deal was crushed by a humiliating defeat in Parliament two weeks ago. She survived a subsequent no-confidence challenge on a party-line vote.

Parliament remains gripped by deadlock, without a consensus on how to exit the E.U. after four decades of free trade and shared governing.

The flamboyant, sharp-tongued speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, has upended tradition by allowing a raft of possible amendments to be debated — leading his critics to charge that the speaker is trying to help backbench renegades foil Brexit by taking control away from the government.

The debate on Tuesday afternoon was heated.

“Order! The House must behave with decorum!” Bercow bellowed.

One of the most popular amendments to be considered Tuesday, written by two backbenchers from opposing parties, seeks to give May until the end of February to secure a deal with Brussels that could pass the Parliament. If the prime minister fails again, then the chamber wants her to seek permission from E.U. leaders to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled departure date of March 29.

There is disagreement over whether such a delay should be a few months long — or until the end of 2019, as the amendment proposes.

In the parliamentary debate, Yvette Cooper, the Labour politician pushing the proposal, repeatedly asked if May would rule out delaying Brexit.

And May, repeatedly, dodged the question.

May said that she hopes to bring a revised deal back to the House of Commons for a meaningful vote “as soon as we possibly can.” If that hasn’t happened by Feb. 13, May said the government would make a statement and then give lawmakers a chance to re-open the debate on the way forward.

Another amendment seeks to stop May’s government from allowing Britain to crash out of the E.U. in two months’ time with no deal at all.

Other countries have raised concerns about the growing prospect of Britain exiting the E.U. without a deal — the default legal position.

Dan Coats, the head of U.S. intelligence, told a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “worldwide threats” on Tuesday that there would be economic disruptions if Britain fails to exit the bloc in a smooth and orderly way.

“This would cause economic disruptions that could substantially weaken the U.K. and Europe,” he said.

Delaying Brexit or avoiding a no-deal scenario would require a formal request from Britain and the approval of the 27 other E.U. leaders.

The last of seven amendments to be debated Tuesday, the one endorsed by May, calls for her to go back to Brussels and seek “alternative arrangements” on the Irish border question — the “backstop” that locks Britain into a European customs regime unless a free trade deal obviates the need.

This will be a tough sell. Ireland’s Europe minister, Helen McEntee, tweeted Tuesday, “There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the U.K. and by the U.K. A bit of realism is needed at this stage.”

It was also unclear exactly what alternative arrangements Britain would be seeking.

Angela Eagle, a Labour lawmaker, told Parliament that there was still “puzzlement” after listening to the prime minister for over an hour. “We are still no nearer any detail on what the phrase ‘alternative arrangements’ mean, except that the prime minister said that they were ‘arrangements’ that were ‘alternative.’”

The Northern Irish politician Sylvia Herman agreed. “The prime minister is trying to encourage this house to vote for an amendment which uses the words ‘alternative arrangements’ to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said. “Forgive me, prime minister, if I say those words are nebulous.”

Attention will also be focused on amendments over the no-deal scenario, unpopular among many members of Parliament, but a real possibility. Governments and businesses in Britain and across Europe are preparing to spend billions on contingency plans.

Richard Harrington, an undersecretary for industry and energy, told a gathering in London that a no-deal Brexit would be “a total disaster for the economy.”

Yet some hardcore Brexiteers support leaving the European trading bloc with no deal, because of their extreme dislike of May’s approach, which seeks to keep Britain closely tied to European rules.

Many ordinary citizens who support Brexit are telling pollsters the same thing and that they are sick and tired of the endless dithering and just want out.

Andrea Leadsom, the Tory leader of the House, told the Sunday Times that “taking no deal off the table has been used as a thinly veiled attempt to stop Brexit.”

Recent days have seen British business leaders warn that a no-deal scenario poses real risks to the economy.

The British Retail Consortium, which includes major grocery store chains, warned Parliament that it is reliant on fresh produce from growers in the European Union — and that it would be impossible to stockpile greens and fruits if Britain crashes out of the trading bloc with no deal.

“We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no deal Brexit,” the association said in a letter reported by the BBC.

Airbus chief executive Tom Enders said last week, “Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness, which asserts that ‘because we have huge plants here we will not move and we will always be here.’ They are wrong.”

Airbus employs 14,000 people in Britain, manufacturing airplane wings.

“It is a disgrace that, more than two years after the result of the 2016 referendum, businesses are still unable to plan properly for the future,” Enders said.

His remarks came as the company that assembles Jaguars and Land Rovers, Britain’s biggest carmaker, said it would extend its annual spring assembly-line stoppage for an extra week because of Brexit uncertainties.

In a briefing with reporters on Monday at 10 Downing Street, May’s official spokesman, who goes unnamed according to protocol, said that the prime minister wants two more weeks to try to change the withdrawal agreement she spent two years negotiating in Brussels.

The most contentious section of the failed agreement involves the legally binding guarantee, the “backstop,” which is designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland — essentially between Britain and the E.U. — after Brexit.

The Irish border backstop requires Britain to remain closely aligned with E.U. rules and customs arrangements if it is unable in the future to agree a new free-trade deal with the bloc.

Critics say the provision could trap Britain in the E.U. forever.

Boris Johnson, a leading Brexiteer and former foreign secretary who has previously argued that Britain should have the courage to leave with no deal, now appears to be tacking.

If May were able to secure a “freedom clause” from Brussels that would make the backstop time-limited or allow Britain to leave on its own, without permission from the E.U., she would win the “full-throated” approval of the entire nation, Johnson wrote in his weekly column in the Daily Telegraph.

william.booth@washpost.com

karla.adam@washpost.com

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