UK's Theresa May back in Brussels, hit by defections over Brexit

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has been shuttling to Brussels with Cox and is due back on Thursday hoping to discuss a "legal text" on the backstop. 

UK's Theresa May back in Brussels, hit by defections over Brexit
Image Courtesy: Reuters

BRUSSELS/LONDON: British Prime Minister Theresa May headed to Brussels on Wednesday to seek more concessions from a sceptical European Union after the defection of three pro-EU lawmakers from her Conservative Party undermined her Brexit strategy.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 but diplomats say London effectively has less than a month to overcome the stalemate in negotiations and seal an agreement ahead of a regular summit of EU national leaders on March 21-22.

Last month, Britain`s divided parliament voted down the Brexit deal May had negotiated with the bloc and she has since struggled to unlock a compromise acceptable both to the House of Commons and to the EU. 

The decision of three Conservative lawmakers to quit their party over what they called the government`s "disastrous handling of Brexit" has compounded doubts over May`s ability to get any EU-UK deal approved.

May said she was saddened by the resignations but would press on with trying to secure a better deal from the EU in time for Brexit. She was due to hold talks at 1730 GMT with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

"What we need to achieve is legally-binding changes which satisfy parliament that we will not be stuck in the (Irish border) backstop indefinitely," May`s spokesman said, predicting "a detailed discussion" with Juncker. 

If successful, a source said, Wednesday`s talks could offer some momentum to the negotiations and allow May to discuss further steps with leaders at an EU summit in Egypt. Then she could return to parliament next week and offer lawmakers some progress before another vote.

The EU has squarely refused London`s demands to bin a protocol on the Irish border - the "backstop" - that UK critics say could trap their country in EU trading rules forever.

The bloc says it is essential to avoid customs controls on the new EU-UK border with Britain`s troubled province of Northern Ireland. It says "alternative technological arrangements" Britain wants to use instead do not exist for now.

Brussels has also resisted May`s push, demanded by eurosceptic Conservatives, to put a time limit on the backstop or allow Britain a way to exit it alone.

SHUTTLE DIPLOMACY

British foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said he remained "hopeful" of a resolution. He stressed the role of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in being persuaded by concessions from the EU to change his legal advice that the Irish backstop risked keeping Britain in EU`s orbit.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has been shuttling to Brussels with Cox and is due back on Thursday hoping to discuss a "legal text" on the backstop. 

On Tuesday Barclay said the alternatives Britain was promoting could be a solution for the future but did not mention them being part of a revised exit treaty. While that could signal a baby step towards a compromise with the EU, it angered the Conservative Party`s eurosceptic hardliners.

May will attend an EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, at the weekend where she will have bilateral meetings with EU leaders, a British government official said.

With 37 days left until Brexit, sterling rose on a Bloomberg report that cited Spain`s foreign minister as saying a revised Brexit accord was being hammered out.

He said the EU did not want to reopen the treaty but that it could be "interpreted, or complemented with explanations that may be satisfactory", Bloomberg reported.

The pound had earlier slipped on worries about May`s ability to get any compromise through parliament.

BREXIT "FOR SLOW LEARNERS"

The three defectors from May`s party said they were joining a new independent group in parliament set up this week by seven former lawmakers of the main opposition Labour Party, which is as divided over Brexit as the Conservatives. 

Frustrated EU diplomats said time was fast running out. "They have until March 10, maybe March 15 at the latest," one EU diplomat said. "Otherwise they will be forced into a delay of Brexit, or crash out."

Many officials believe that, come what may, Britain will have to ask for a delay to the March 29 deadline, if only to give it time to pass further legislation ahead of its departure.

"It`s Brexit for slow learners," said another EU diplomat.

The EU hopes that, under growing pressure of looming no-deal disruptions, Britain would eventually accept assurances the bloc has already offered, repackaged in a legally-binding way, stating that the backstop would only ever be used temporarily and as a last resort. 

May is keen to get some EU concessions before Feb.27 when parliament is due to vote again on Brexit options. But the EU is wary of offering anything now to see it sink again in the divided UK parliament. 

"It`s too early for a breakthrough," another EU diplomat said. "The second half of March is the make-or-break moment."