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LONDON (Reuters) – The parliament will vote on Wednesday on whether to leave the European Union in 16 days without an agreement as the government said it would eliminate import tariffs on a wide range of goods in a no-deal Brexit scenario.
British lawmakers on Tuesday handed Prime Minister Theresa May a second humiliating defeat on the Brexit plan she had agreed with the EU, plunging the country deeper into political crisis.
The turmoil leaves the world’s fifth largest economy facing a range of scenarios – it could leave without a transition deal; delay the March 29 divorce date enshrined in law; May could hold a snap election or try a third time to get her deal passed; or Britain could hold another Brexit referendum.
On Wednesday, parliament is expected to reject a no-deal Brexit in a vote at 1900 GMT, although this will have no legal force. On Thursday, it will then vote on whether to ask the EU for a delay to Brexit, something to which all the bloc’s other 27 members must agree.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the bloc would need to know why Britain wanted to extend talks and it was up to London to find a way out of the deadlock.
“If the UK still wants to leave the EU in an orderly manner, this treaty is – and will remain – the only treaty possible,” Barnier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Britain’s Parliament delivered a crushing defeat to Prime Minister Theresa May’s European Union divorce deal Tuesday, plunging the Brexit process into chaos just 17 days before the UK is due to leave the bloc.
Lawmakers rejected the deal 391-242, ignoring May’s entreaties to back the agreement and end the political chaos and economic uncertainty that Brexit has unleashed.
It was a narrower outcome than the 230-vote margin of defeat for the agreement in January, before May secured changes from the bloc — but not by much.
With EU leaders warning there would be no more changes or negotiations, and with less than three weeks to go until the UK is due to leave, British lawmakers now face a stark choice between leaving the EU without an agreement to smooth the way, or delaying the country’s withdrawal past the scheduled March 29 departure date.
May — her voice ragged after days of frantic shuttle diplomacy to secure last-minute changes to the deal — had earlier told the House of Commons, “this is the moment and this is the time — time for us to come together, back this motion and get the deal done.”
“If this deal is not passed, then Brexit could be lost,” May said.
But prominent Brexit supporters whose support May needs were unconvinced. Hard-core Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative Party and the prime minister’s allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party both said they could not support the deal, which Parliament rejected by an overwhelming margin in January.
The DUP, which props up May’s minority government, said “sufficient progress has not been achieved” on the key issue of the Irish border.
The European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservatives, which has dozens of lawmakers as members, said the amendments “do not deliver ‘legally binding changes'” to the withdrawal agreement, as the government promised.
“In light of our own legal analysis and others, we do not recommend accepting the government’s motion today,” group member Bill Cash said.
At a late-night news conference Monday in Strasbourg, France, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced changes designed to overcome lawmakers’ concerns about provisions designed to ensure the border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland remains open after Brexit.
The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.
May said documents to be added to the deal provided “legally binding” assurances that the backstop would be temporary and that Britain would have a way to get out of it if the EU failed to negotiate in good faith. However, the text of the 585-page withdrawal agreement remained unchanged.
May hoped the changes would be enough to overturn the 230-vote margin of defeat for the deal in January.
But her hopes were dashed when Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said the changes “reduce the risk” Britain could be trapped inside EU regulations — but do not eliminate it. The two-page opinion said the UK could still not extract itself from the terms of the divorce deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.
In a written legal opinion , Cox said that if UK-EU negotiations became stalled through “intractable differences,” Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
John Whittingdale, a Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker, said the attorney general’s advice was “pretty terminal” for May’s plan.
The main opposition Labour Party also said it would reject the deal.
“In terms of the substance, literally nothing has changed,” Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
The pound, which had risen on hopes the deal would be passed, slumped by more than 1 percent against the dollar after Cox’s assessment, to trade at $1.3108.
Other EU nations had urged British politicians to seize the chance to back the deal and ensure an orderly departure.
German EU affairs minister Michael Roth, called it “a far-reaching compromise.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte tweeted that he was “pleased with the agreement,” adding: “An orderly #Brexit is crucial for both the EU and the UK. There is no alternative.”
The EU warned British politicians that negotiations will not be reopened if Parliament rejects the deal again.
“In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance,” Juncker said.
Britain’s political impasse over Brexit has raised fears of a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in the UK and the 27 remaining EU countries, with tariffs and border checks imposed on trade between the two.
Lawmakers are now due to vote in the next two days on whether to leave the EU without an agreement — an idea likely to be rejected — or to ask the EU to delay Brexit.
Delaying Brexit would need the approval from all 27 remaining EU countries. They are likely to agree, as long as Britain leaves before elections to the European parliament in late May.
Some British lawmakers had warned their Brexit-backing colleagues that rejecting the deal could lead to Britain’s departure being postponed indefinitely, because a delay would give momentum to opponents of Brexit.
“Today is our Hotel California moment. If we don’t check out tonight, we may never leave,” tweeted Conservative legislator Bob Seely.
More than two and a half years after the country voted to leave the EU — and with no certainty about when or how it will — many Britons are simply fed up.
In the staunchly pro-Brexit port of Dover in southern England, retiree Mary Simpson said she felt that her voice as a “leave” voter had not been heard.
“I am actually considering never voting again, quite honestly, because I am beginning to feel that there is no point in it,” she said.
Last November, after two years of hard-fought negotiations, I agreed a Brexit deal with the EU that I passionately believe delivers on the decision taken by the British people to leave the European Union.
Over the last four months, I have made the case for that deal in Westminster and across the UK.
The end of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy for British farmers and fishermen.
An independent trade policy.
And the deal sets us on course for a good future relationship with our friends and allies in the EU.
A close economic partnership that is good for business.
Ongoing security co-operation to keep our peoples safe.
The deal honours the referendum result and is good for both the UK and the EU.
But there was a clear concern in Parliament over one issue in particular: the Northern Ireland backstop.
Having an insurance policy to guarantee that there will never be a hard border in Northern Ireland is absolutely right – it honours the UK’s solemn commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
But if we ever have to use that insurance policy, it cannot become a permanent arrangement and it is not the template for our future relationship.
The deal that MPs voted on in January was not strong enough in making that clear – and legally binding changes were needed to set that right.
Today we have agreed them.
First, a joint instrument with comparable legal weight to the Withdrawal Agreement will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely.
If they do, it can be challenged through arbitration and if they are found to be in breach the UK can suspend the backstop.
The joint instrument also gives a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it.
And it entrenches in legally-binding form the commitments made in the exchange of letters with Presidents Tusk and Juncker in January.
Second, the UK and the EU have made a joint statement in relation to the Political Declaration.
It sets out a number of commitments to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating and bringing into force the future relationship.
And it makes a legal commitment that the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.
There will be a specific negotiating track on alternative arrangements from the very start of the next phase of negotiations.
It will consider facilitations and technologies – both those currently ready and emerging.
The UK’s position will be informed by the three domestic groups announced last week – for technical experts, MPs, and business and trade unions.
Third, alongside the joint instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement, the United Kingdom Government will make a Unilateral Declaration that if the backstop comes into use and discussions on our future relationship break down so that there is no prospect of subsequent agreement, it is the position of the United Kingdom that there would be nothing to prevent the UK instigating measures that would ultimately dis-apply the backstop.
Unilateral Declarations are commonly used by states alongside the ratification of treaties.
The Attorney General will set out in legal analysis the meaning of the joint instrument and unilateral declaration to Parliament.
Tomorrow the House of Commons will debate the improved deal that these legal changes have created.
I will speak in more detail about them when I open that debate.
MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop.
Today we have secured legal changes.
Now is the time to come together, to back this improved Brexit deal, and to deliver on the instruction of the British people.
Theresa May is in Strasbourg tonight trying to rescue her Brexit deal by securing a tweak to the terms of the infamous backstop.
But her Brexit deal, whether it is adjusted or not, is expected to be put to a vote in the Commons tomorrow, despite whisperings earlier during a day of high drama that she would pull the vote last minute while seeking any concessions from the EU.
May will likely face a second crushing defeat over her deal tomorrow, following a record-breaking defeat of 230 votes in January. The backstop, much-loathed by Brexiteers, was the biggest obstacle for May then, and remains the biggest obstacle for May now. Securing enough votes for her deal will depend on the EU offering some pretty serious concessions on the backstop, which they are unlikely to do.
On Friday, EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michael Barnier did offer the UK some concessions, sort of. His non-concessionary concessions amounted to not much beyond a strengthened emphasis that the EU would try to prevent the UK falling into the backstop. It’s understood that May was forced to reject Barnier’s proposal, following an intervention by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, since he did not see it going far enough to assuage the concerns of the anti-deal MPs.
In his talks with Brussels, Cox asked that principles of “reasonableness” be applied in assessing whether the EU is negotiating fairly in trying to keep the UK out of the backstop. That is as nebulous as it is implausible, and the Brexiteers don’t appear moved. Despite May and Cox’s efforts the backstop remains the sticking point, and the reason why May’s deal looks destined to fail in the Commons
The deal may not fall short by such a large majority as last time however, which is small comfort to the Prime Minister. The DUP, vocal critics of the deal, might support May last minute. But, even if the DUP get onside May still needs 106 MPs to change their mind. And it’s not looking good – May is putting to MPs an essentially identical question as last time. And while a few among the anti-deal MPs may be looking for a ladder to climb down so they can back the deal, the tactics haven’t worked so far and the parliamentary arithmetic still works against her.
Assuming May’s deal fails tomorrow (you would be pretty safe to do so absent a breakthrough late tonight), MPs have been promised two further votes. The first, on Wednesday, will ask MPs whether the Commons should rule out a no deal exit.
The second, most likely on Thursday, will ask MPs to vote on extending Article 50. There are a few problems here. Extending Article 50 requires the unanimous consent of all 27 EU member states. And, the EU has made it abundantly clear that it will not extend Article 50 in the absence of a clear plan from the government about how they intend to use the extension.
Extending Article 50 will also require the UK to take part in the upcoming MEP elections, which both the EU and the UK want to avoid.
So, it’s at best uncertain whether the EU would offer the UK any extension at all. And when it comes to ruling out no deal, there is an even greater impasse. Ruling out a no deal Brexit does nothing concrete in the way of stopping it from happening. If there is no extension to Article 50, and no deal approved by 29th March, the UK will leave the EU without a deal whether the MPs like it or not.
There will likely be a series of amendments to be voted on. Another (probably failed) attempt from the second referendum crowd is likely. MPs favouring a Norway deal will try for that again too. However, there simply aren’t the numbers in parliament for these to be meaningful challenges, yet.
Speaking of insufficient attempts to pacify the concerns of the Brexiteers, Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney made a statement outside Leinster House this afternoon. He said: “We are very clear that the withdrawal agreement can’t change in terms of text. But we also want to be helpful in terms of providing the clarity and reassurance that is needed in Westminster that the backstop is intended to be temporary. Nobody is looking to trap anybody anywhere permanently, but the backstop needs to be there and it needs to be robust.”
It is an understandable statement but unlikely to move MPs. The next steps for May are terribly tricky. Time is really running out. Number 10’s plan that MPs will realise Brexit has reached crisis point and capitulate to supporting the deal doesn’t look like it’s working. Theresa May needs a miracle and it would be out of character for Juncker to supply it.
AIWA! NO!| Seven Labour MPs announced their departure from the Labour party on Monday morning after months of tension and disagreement over the leadership’s handling of Brexit and other issues.
The seven — Chuka Umunna, Luciana Berger, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Mike Gapes, Gavin Shuker, and Anne Coffey — told a press conference in central London that they were quitting Labour to become independent MPs, operating under the name The Independent Group.
Umunna called for a centrist “alternative” in British politics as the rebel MPs complained about the far-left turn the party had taken under veteran socialist Corbyn.
“The bottom line is this: politics is broken, it doesn’t have to be this way, let’s change it,” Umunna said at a hastily arranged press conference in London.
The seven MPs will form a breakaway independent group in parliament, undermining Corbyn as he attempts to steer the party through the highly divisive issue of Brexit.
Many Labour voters, particularly in northern England, chose to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum — but a majority of Labour MPs and members supported staying in.
The referendum cut across party political allegiances also in the ruling Conservative Party, which is now deeply divided between pro-EU moderates and Brexit hardliners.
The Labour rebellion is unlikely to make a major difference in crucial votes on prime minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal, but pro-EU forces welcomed the move.
Vince Cable, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said he was “open to working with like-minded groups and individuals in order to give the people the final say on Brexit, with the option to remain in the EU”.
Corbyn said he was “disappointed”. Pointing to his party’s strong performance in the 2017 general election, he said: “Now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all.”
Corbyn is under fire from europhiles for failing to push for a second referendum. Instead, he called on May to negotiate a customs union with the EU to ease trade ties after Brexit.
Corbyn has also been criticised for months for his handling of cases of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, and his past associations with Palestinian militants.
Another of the seven MPs, Luciana Berger, a victim of anti-Semitic online abuse for years, said: “This has been a very difficult, painful but necessary decision.”
The Labour Party had become “institutionally anti-Semitic”, said Berger. “I have become embarrassed and ashamed to represent the Labour Party. I am leaving behind a culture of bullying, bigotry and intimidation,” she said.
MP Mike Gapes said one of his main reasons for leaving was that he was “furious that the Labour leadership is complicit in facilitating Brexit”. Colleague Chris Leslie said he was leaving because of “Labour’s betrayal on Europe”.