Brexit vote still a go for Tuesday but pessimism abounds

British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to seek concessions from the European Union in a last-ditch attempt to avoid another humiliating defeat in Parliament of her deal to exit the bloc.

British government says it's secured 'legally binding changes' from EU to overcome key stumbling block

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives Monday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France to meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a last-ditch attempt to get concessions from the EU on Brexit. (Jean-Francois Badias/Associated Press)

The British government says it has secured "legally binding changes" from the European Union to overcome a key stumbling block on the Brexit deal.

The announcement comes after British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to Strasbourg Monday to seek concessions from the EU in a last-ditch attempt to avoid another humiliating defeat in Parliament of her deal to exit the bloc.

Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington told the House of Commons on Monday night that the two sides agreed on a "joint instrument" clarifying the withdrawal deal.

The measure is intended to reassure Britain it won't be trapped forever in a mechanism designed to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Concerns over the border measure were the main reason Britain's Parliament rejected the deal in January. Lawmakers are due to vote on it again Tuesday.

Just 18 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU, there is still no ratified divorce deal and talks with the bloc stalled over the weekend as May felt she was unable to break the political deadlock in London.

In a day of frenetic diplomacy ahead of a Tuesday parliamentary vote on her deal, May spoke to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in an effort to find a way through the Brexit maze, after she rejected a Brexit compromise hashed out in Brussels on Saturday.

"Please don't assume this points to a deal," a British official said. "It means there is basis for a further face-to-face discussion as part of the talks."

May's spokesperson said a "meaningful" parliamentary vote on her deal would go ahead on Tuesday, even though talks with the EU had been deadlocked.

European officials said there had been no breakthrough in talks over the weekend and expressed frustration with May's attempts to secure concessions just weeks before Britain's exit.

"May has boxed herself even deeper into a corner, it seems the second meaningful vote will go ahead on Tuesday but it also seems like it won't be the last meaningful vote on this," one EU official said.

"We really want to be over with it now. It's not going anywhere so even an extension is unlikely to break the impasse. There is not much patience or goodwill left on our side."

A man feeds food to dogs during the Brexit Dogs Dinner protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London on Sunday. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said it was up to the British Parliament to make important decisions on Brexit this week.

The United Kingdom's tortuous crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an extraordinary array of options including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

The ultimate outcome remains unclear, though most diplomats and investors say Brexit will define the United Kingdom's prosperity for generations to come.

No-deal, delay votes possible this week

The deadlocked talks effectively open up the prospect of either a last-minute deal, probably around the time of an EU summit on March 21-22, or a delay to Brexit.

Parliament rejected May's deal by 230 votes on Jan. 15, prompting her to return to Brussels in search of changes to the so-called Irish backstop — an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Many British lawmakers object to the policy on the grounds it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely and cleave Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom.

But the EU has repeatedly said it does not want to reopen the divorce deal, officially known as the Withdrawal Agreement, and the British government's top lawyer has failed to find a legal fix.

"We're very clear that the Withdrawal Agreement can't change but we want to try to be helpful in terms of providing the clarity and reassurance that's needed in Westminster that the backstop is intended to be temporary," Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said. "No one is looking to trap anyone anywhere."

In Brussels, diplomats and officials said Britain would face EU demands for billions of euros in cash if it fails to strike a Brexit deal.

May offered lawmakers a "meaningful" vote on what she had hoped would be a revised deal on Tuesday but with no major changes yet secured, Brexit-supporting lawmakers warned it would be defeated again.

"We will essentially be voting on exactly the same Withdrawal Agreement that we voted on last time and in very simple terms: if you ask the same question you are likely to get pretty much the same answer," said Conservative MP Mark Francois.

Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party expressed pessimism over Tuesday's vote. (Facundo Arrizabalaga/EPA-EFE)

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May's minority government, and Steve Baker, a leading figure in the large euroskeptic faction of her Conservative Party, said she was heading for defeat.

If her deal is defeated, May has pledged to give lawmakers a vote on Wednesday on leaving without a deal on March 29 and, if they reject that, then they will vote on Thursday on delaying Brexit.

Yvette Cooper, an opposition party lawmaker who has led efforts to hand Parliament more control over Brexit, said Parliament would try to take control of the exit process if May is unable to build a consensus.


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