British vote ups risk of messy no-deal Brexit: EU

Theresa May is trying to get Brussels to reopen her hard-won Brexit divorce deal after parliament told her to avoid leaving the EU without a deal.
European Union leader Jean-Claude Juncker said the pact British Prime Minister Theresa May (above) sealed with the 27 EU leaders last month "remains the best and only deal possible".
European Union leader Jean-Claude Juncker said the pact British Prime Minister Theresa May (above) sealed with the 27 EU leaders last month "remains the best and only deal possible".

Bloc leader says deal cannot be renegotiated even after UK Parliament voted for changes

European Union leader Jean-Claude Juncker warned yesterday that the British Parliament's decision to demand changes to the Brexit withdrawal deal had increased the risk of a messy "no deal" divorce, as he insisted the deal cannot be renegotiated.

"Yesterday's vote increased the risk of a disorderly withdrawal," the president of the European Commission told the European Parliament.

"We need to be ready for all scenarios, including the worst."

Mr Juncker said the pact British Prime Minister Theresa May sealed with the 27 EU leaders last month "remains the best and only deal possible".

"The debates and votes in the House of Commons yesterday will not change that. The withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated."

British MPs had late on Tuesday voted through an amendment saying they would support a deal for Britain's withdrawal from the EU only if a controversial "backstop" clause to keep the Irish border open was removed.

Mrs May said she would seek to revisit the pact and bring back a revised deal by Feb 13.

 
 
 

But European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, yesterday joined Mr Juncker in reiterating the EU's refusal to reopen negotiations less than two months before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29.

 

As things stand, the British Parliament's series of votes on the current Brexit plan added little clarity to the path forward for the country as the deadline inches ever closer. Two weeks after Parliament resoundingly rejected Mrs May's plan to leave Europe, the main outcome of Tuesday's votes was to back what amounted to her Plan B - to seek "alternative arrangements" with the EU to replace the Irish backstop.

The backstop, designed to prevent a return of a hard border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, is viewed as the most contentious part of Mrs May's exit deal.

It is strongly opposed by hardline Brexiteers who say it binds Britain with the EU in perpetuity.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said yesterday Brexit negotiators have spent two years looking at alternatives to the backstop and have not found any that work. Possible options included time limits, exit clauses and technological solutions.

"We have been through all of these things. We have tested them and we have found that they do not stand up to scrutiny, and now we have a British prime minister advocating again for the same things that were tested," Mr Coveney said.

Ambassadors of the 27 EU member states were due to meet yesterday to discuss Brexit, and Mrs May will speak to European Council president Donald Tusk by phone late on Wednesday afternoon (early Thursday morning Singapore time).

Apart from supporting one back-up option for Mrs May, however, British lawmakers on Tuesday also narrowed down some of the other options.

They voted down an amendment to delay Brexit by extending Article 50 to the end of the year if the government does not agree on a plan by the end of next month, even though there were indications that the EU would have accepted a request for an extension.

Lawmakers also supported an amendment that rules out Britain bowing out of the bloc without a deal, the so-called no-deal Brexit, although the amendment was non-binding.

Most MPs had said that they would "support a deal with changes to the backstop, combined with measures to address concerns over Parliament's role in the negotiation of the future relationship and commitments on workers rights".

Addressing the House after the series of votes, Mrs May said: "It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal."

Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn met Mrs May for talks yesterday, having previously rejected her invitations. A Labour spokesman said they had a "useful exchange of views" on the next steps for Brexit and agreed to meet again.

Commenting on the impact of Brexit, Professor David De Cremer of the National University of Singapore Business School said there will be a repositioning of the economic and political dynamics of Asian countries with Britain.

He added that Asian countries, having seen Britain as a gateway to the EU, will have to focus more on the EU directly. Likewise, companies around the world will also turn their focus to Asia, given its growing markets and middle class.

"We would like to see the EU showing more engagement in Asia, as that has been quite limited compared with the UK's," said Prof De Cremer. "This could be a competitive advantage for the EU. The EU, which is a big economic market, will have a stronger advantage over the UK because of its sheer size, and China being the biggest piece of the pie."

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 31, 2019, with the headline 'British vote ups risk of messy no-deal Brexit: EU'. Print Edition | Subscribe