May hopes EU will rescue Brexit deal with late concession

LONDON • UK Prime Minister Theresa May is trying to persuade European leaders to save her Brexit deal with a last-minute offer to win over sceptics in Parliament before the plan is put to a crucial vote next week.

The British premier wants the European Union (EU) to make a new “political and legal” promise that the UK won’t be trapped in a contentious fallback arrangement indefinitely, her office said on Monday. The so-called Irish backstop in the Brexit divorce deal is the main reason MPs won’t back the accord.

One British official said May is hoping the EU will agree to promise a target date for the future trading relationship to come into effect — potentially in December 2021 — and that this pledge will come before politicians vote on the deal around Jan 15.

The benefit of such a promise would be to limit the backstop arrangement to just one year. Pro-Brexit politicians fear the backstop will trap Britain in the EU’s trade regime indefinitely, robbing them of their dream of striking deals with other countries around the world. May’s Northern Irish allies also object to the backstop, and won’t vote for her deal unless it’s revised.

May spent the holidays speaking to EU leaders by phone, while German and Irish leaders also held discussions about breaking the stalemate. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was in Dublin yesterday. Still, the view in Brussels remains that the deal can’t be re-opened.

“The deal that is on the table is the best and the only deal possible,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said on Monday. “This deal will not be renegotiated.”

There are less than three months before the UK is due to leave the EU on March 29 and so far, there’s no clarity on the terms of the split. The deal May has struck with the EU was due to be put to a vote in the British Parliament last month, but she cancelled the ballot after accepting her plan would be defeated.

May has promised to try again by putting her deal to a House of Commons vote next week — probably on Tuesday, Jan 15 — but she said she needs fresh assurances from the EU to persuade her opponents to come on side.

As MPs returned to Westminster from their three-week break, the main developments on Monday included:

May is setting up a new Cabinet committee of 21 ministers focused on no-deal planning. Its remit will be contingency plans as well as “engagement” with the EU on no-deal planning.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the government has no intention of extending the Article 50 Brexit negotiating period, after a minister claimed such a delay “might be necessary” if May’s deal is voted down.

May’s spokesman James Slack promised to “do whatever is required” when asked if Parliament will have to work through weekends and holidays to get Brexit legislation passed in time for exit day.

Over the Christmas holiday, May held “constructive” talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, as well as the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, Slack said. — Bloomberg