By Kylie MacLellan, William James and Elizabeth Piper
LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May asked the divided British parliament to send a message to Brussels on Tuesday that lawmakers would support a negotiated European Union withdrawal deal if a plan to avoid a hard border in Ireland was replaced.
Parliament has been in deadlock since May’s Brexit plan, agreed after months of talks with the EU, was rejected by an overwhelming majority of lawmakers.
With exactly two months left until Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, there is no agreement in London on how or even whether to leave the world’s biggest trading bloc.
Parliament was trying on Tuesday to find some way forward by debating and voting on what changes it wants May to seek to her deal.
“Today we have the chance to show the European Union what it will take to get a deal through this House of Commons, what it will take to move beyond the confusion and division and uncertainty that now hangs over us,” May told parliament before five hours of debate.
“I also accept that this House does not want the deal I put before it, in the form that it currently exists … Today we need to send an emphatic message about what we do want,” said May, adding that she now wanted to secure “a significant and legally binding change to the Withdrawal Agreement”.
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 there must be a “backstop” – an unlimited guarantee to ensure there is no return to a hard border between Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.
“We will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. So it may be about semantics of what ‘reopening’ means,” an EU diplomat involved in Brexit talks said. “If things go towards more declarations, assurances or statements – we can do that. But if she really wants to reopen the whole thing, then it’s a ‘No’.”
Unless lawmakers agree a way forward or the EU agrees to extend the negotiating period, Britain will leave without any deal, a scenario that businesses fear will bring chaos to the world’s fifth biggest economy.
There have been warnings that borders will snarl up, hitting trade and leading to shortages. On Monday, major supermarkets and fast-food restaurants said food supplies could be seriously disrupted.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Ireland expected to ask Brussels for emergency aid in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Sterling recently hit a 2-1/2 month highs of $1.3218 on hopes that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided, and stood around $1.3137 just before voting on the series of amendments began at 1900 GMT.
May wants lawmakers to support the proposal authored by senior Conservative lawmaker Graham Brady to call for the backstop to be removed and replaced with “alternative arrangements”.
The Northern Irish party that props up May’s government said it would support the amendment, as did the hardline pro-Brexit ERG group of Conservative lawmakers, most of whom voted against her original deal.
An official in Brussels said such a proposal would not work for the EU, but it is not a foregone conclusion that lawmakers will back it, one of seven proposed to try to break the impasse.
Others include one proposed by opposition Labour lawmaker Yvette Cooper, which seeks to shift control of Brexit from May’s government to parliament and would give lawmakers who want to prevent a no-deal Brexit at all costs a possible legislative route to do so.
If a subsequent bill is passed, it would give May until Feb. 26 to get a deal approved by parliament or face a vote on whether to ask the EU to delay Britain’s exit.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said his party would back this proposal, and that a delay to the March 29 departure date was now inevitable.
Another faction, led by both Conservative pro-EU and pro-Brexit lawmakers, are trying to craft a plan to return to Brussels with two new options.
These call for the backstop to be renegotiated or, if that fails, for Britain to leave on World Trade Organization rules at the end of 2021.
Tuesday’s votes are not a rerun of the Jan. 15 vote on whether to approve May’s Brexit deal, but a chance to discover what sort of changes would be required to win the support of parliament, so the prime minister can try to renegotiate the agreement in Brussels.
May said she would hold a second “meaningful” vote on her deal as soon as possible. Strong support for the Brady amendment would allow her to tell the EU that changes to the backstop could be enough to allow her to get parliamentary approval for a deal.
The EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand said on Monday the bloc was “open to alternative arrangements” on the Irish border but that Brady’s proposal did not spell out what they were.
(Additional reporting by Andy Bruce and Andrew MacAskill in London and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels; Writing by Michael Holden and Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan)