British Prime Minister Theresa May is preparing to compromise with the European Union over the future of Ireland’s border, with just two weeks left to save her Brexit deal.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay privately told the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, on Monday the U.K. doesn’t need to reopen the divorce agreement and would accept other ways to address British concerns, a person familiar with the talks said. The U.K. government had no immediate comment.
The stance risks adding to the anger among euroskeptics in May’s Conservative Party, who want her to demand a re-write of the Brexit accord to strip out the so-called backstop plan for avoiding a hard border with Ireland. These pro-Brexit Tories are now a major obstacle to May’s hopes of striking a new deal in Brussels and then getting it approved in Parliament in London.
On Thursday, members of the pro-Brexit European Research Group of Conservatives inflicted another embarrassing parliamentary defeat on the premier after they refused to endorse her approach to resolving the deadlock.
Save the Deal
Privately, one senior member of May’s administration said she probably has two weeks to save her deal before the House of Commons takes control over the process out of her hands, in a vote scheduled for Feb. 27.
Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom described Thursday’s defeat as more of a “hiccup” than a “disaster,” although she conceded it allows EU officials to continue their “pretense” of saying they don’t know what Britain wants.
“The vote yesterday didn’t change anything,” the Brexit supporter Leadsom told BBC radio on Friday. “The prime minister carries on and she will continue to seek those legally binding changes to the backstop that will enable Parliament to support her deal.”
Another minister revealed his frustration with the feuding within May’s party. “Back her otherwise we are all doomed,” Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan said in an interview at the Munich Security conference. “The European Research Group needs to realise that our reputation abroad is in free fall because of their actions.”
Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on March 29 but, Parliament overwhelmingly rejected the terms for the split that May negotiated in a vote last month. That means the U.K. is on course to fall out of the bloc of 28 countries without an agreement, potentially causing major damage to the economy, unless one side backs down.
Thursday’s vote is not binding on the government, but the motion was an attempt by May to buy more time to secure concessions from the EU. Her aides fear the defeat will undermine her negotiations as she’s now effectively lost her political mandate to demand changes to the divorce terms in Brussels.
“Another day of failed politics, another day closer to no deal chaos,” Carolyn Fairbairn, director general of the U.K.’s business lobby, the Confederation of British Industry, said on Twitter. “Politicians must find a deal that protects our economy. Failure would be unforgivable.”
–With assistance from Thomas Penny, Jessica Shankleman and Robert Hutton.
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