Britain, EU on collision course

May seeks divorce change, Brussels rejects renegotiation

The UK went further on a collision course with the EU after the House of Commons voted on Tuesday to support PM Theresa May in her efforts to reach a divorce deal amendment, news wires reported. The MPs demanded she renegotiate the deal, while EU Member States and officials claim negotiations could not be reopened less than two months before the UK is due by law to leave the EU.

Two weeks after voting down May's Brexit deal, parliament demanded she return to Brussels to replace the so-called Irish backstop aimed at preventing the reintroduction of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. “There is limited appetite for such a change in the EU and negotiating it will not be easy,” May told lawmakers who voted 317 votes to 301 to support the plan. “I agree that we should not leave without a deal. However, simply opposing no deal is not enough to stop it,” she added.

May said she would seek “legally binding changes” to the divorce deal which she clinched in November with the EU after two years of tortuous negotiations. In essence, the British PM will try to clinch a last-minute deal by using the implicit threat of a no-deal Brexit. However, the European response was expectedly hard. According to France, there could be no renegotiation and only a “credible” British proposal could be put under further discussion. European Council President Donald Tusk said the divorce deal was not up for renegotiation.

Expectedly, on Wednesday EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told Britain that time was too short to find an alternative to the Irish border backstop agreed in their divorce deal, as London wants, and that this deal was not open for renegotiation. “No one, on either side, was able to say what arrangement would be needed to ensure controls on goods, animals and merchandise without having a border. We have neither the time, nor the technologies,” Barnier said.

The growing uncertainty leaves Britain's investors and allies trying to guess whether the crisis will end up in a deal, a chaotic no-deal Brexit on 29 March, a delay, or no Brexit at all. Certainly May will use the implicit threat of leaving without agreement to seek a deal, analysts claim. EU sources maintain that additional clarifications, statements or assurances on the backstop might be possible, short of reopening the agreement. But May says she needs a legally binding change in order to get parliament's approval for a revised deal in mid-February.

So far the European response has been united, and blunt. “The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation,” Council President Donald Tusk tweeted in what he said was a message to May. EU officials said Tusk and May had 45 minutes of frank telephone discussion last Wednesday evening. Tusk stressed that it is up to May to come back to EU with a proposal that she can convince the EU will get a majority in parliament. Tusk made clear that it is up to the UK to come up with solutions, not the EU.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Britain had not offered any feasible way to keep the border open. “What we are being asked to do here is to compromise on a solution that works, and to replace it with wishful thinking,” he pointed out. Ireland's economy will suffer most from a no-deal Brexit. At the same time, Irish PM Leo Varadkar told May by phone that “the latest developments had reinforced the need for a backstop which is legally robust and workable in practice”.

In order to get the EU prepared for any possibility, the Commission adopted last Wednesday the final set of “no-deal” contingency measures, the EU press service reported. The measures aim at ensuring that in the event of a no-deal scenario young people from the EU and the UK who are participating in the Erasmus+ programme can complete their stay without interruption.

Furthermore, EU Member States' authorities will continue to take into account periods of insurance, (self) employment or residence in the UK before withdrawal, when calculating social security benefits, such as pensions. And last but not least, UK beneficiaries of EU funding would continue to receive payments under their current contracts, provided that the UK continues to honour its financial obligations under the EU budget. This issue is separate from the financial settlement between the EU and the UK.

The measures are temporary in nature, limited in scope and will be adopted unilaterally by the EU. The Commission will continue to support Member States in their preparedness work for no-deal Brexit, but in the same time will continue working to avoid it.

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