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U.K. Parliament approves Brexit amendment on replacing Irish backstop

Britain's Parliament votes in favour of a proposal that calls on the government to replace the so-called Northern Irish backstop with alternative arrangements to secure the support of Parliament for Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal.

Lawmakers also approve non-binding amendment calling for rejection of no-deal option

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gestures Tuesday as she speaks during a debate on the process of getting a Plan B for Brexit to Parliament. (Reuters TV)

British lawmakers instructed Prime Minister Theresa May Tuesday to demand that Brussels replace the Irish border arrangement known as the "backstop," in a last-ditch attempt to renegotiate an exit treaty that the European Union says it will not change. 

The amendment, put forward by influential Conservative lawmaker Graham Brady, passed by 317 votes to 301. It is intended to strengthen May's hand when she returns to Brussels to try to renegotiate — something the EU again ruled out within minutes of the vote. 

With two months left until Britain is due by law to leave the EU, investors and allies have urged the British government to clinch a deal to allow an orderly exit from the club it joined in 1973. 

"Tonight, a majority of honourable members have said they would support a deal with changes to the backstop," May said, only two weeks after her divorce deal was crushed in the biggest parliamentary defeat in modern British history.

People shelter under umbrellas as they watch the vote in Parliament on their phones Tuesday. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

"It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in the house for leaving the EU with a deal," May said, adding she would seek "legally binding changes."

The amendment calls for the backstop to be replaced with unspecified "alternative arrangements" to avoid the reintroduction of border checks in Ireland, and says Parliament would support May's Brexit deal if this change were made. 

However, Brussels has repeatedly said it does not want to reopen the treaty, which has been signed off by the other 27 EU leaders, and has said the "backstop" is needed to ensure there can be no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland.

European Council President Donald Tusk said the backstop was part of the withdrawal deal and was not up for negotiation. 

"The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union," Tusk said via a spokesperson. 

"The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation."

France also rejected any renegotiation of the divorce deal.

"The EU has been clear on this point," French President Emmanuel Macron's office said in a statement.

Ireland's European Affairs minister said Tuesday that May's demand for binding changes to the backstop amounts to reneging on her government's commitments. 

"It's exasperating at this stage because this is a deal which was negotiated with the U.K., by the U.K., signed off by the U.K. and the prime minister — and now it looks as though this evening, essentially, there is a row-back and a reneging on the commitments that were made," Helen McEntee told Irish national broadcaster RTE. 

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has said Ireland expects to ask Brussels for emergency aid in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

Non-binding no-deal amendment

Lawmakers rejected two amendments setting out a path for Parliament to prevent a no-deal exit if May cannot get a deal passed next month. However, they did later approve a symbolic proposal calling on the government to rule out a damaging no-deal Brexit.

The so-called Spelman amendment "rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework for the future relationship." 

The amendment — which is non-binding — sends a signal that Parliament as a whole opposes leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement, which will happen by default on March 29 if no alternative is agreed, but it does not compel the government to prevent such a departure.

"I agree that we should not leave without a deal," May said. "However, simply opposing no deal is not enough to stop it. The government will now redouble its efforts to get a deal that this House can support."

On behalf of the 27 EU states remaining in the bloc after Brexit, Tusk said, "We welcome and share the U.K. parliament's ambition to avoid a no-deal scenario. We continue to urge the U.K. government to clarify its intentions with respect to its next steps as soon as possible."

Anti-Brexit protester Steve Bray holds up a placard Monday. Protesters both for and against Brexit are a daily sight outside the Houses of Parliament. (Alastair Grant/Associated Press)

He also gave the U.K. an opening to extend the Brexit deadline.

"Should there be a U.K. reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 would stand ready to consider it and decide by unanimity."

Tusk added that the EU would press on with contingency preparations as well as the ratification of the existing Withdrawal Agreement that has stalled on the U.K. side.

Parliament voted down several other amendments that would wrest control of the Brexit negotiations from May if she fails to secure concessions from Brussels. 

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