May rushes to finalise Brexit deal before Parliament votes

British PM must work things out with her MPs: EU chief negotiator

LONDON • Prime Minister Theresa May was to travel to Strasbourg yesterday in a bid to finalise her Brexit deal ahead of a crucial vote in the British Parliament, even as the European Union's chief negotiator shut down hopes of a compromise.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said Mrs May was heading to the French city, where top EU officials were meeting this week for the European Parliament's plenary session.

"The British Prime Minister is travelling to Strasbourg this evening, I understand, to try to finalise an agreement, if that's possible, to be able to put that to a meaningful vote in Westminster tomorrow," Mr Coveney told reporters in Dublin.

But on the eve of a crucial vote in the House of Commons on Mrs May's divorce deal, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier told Agence France-Presse that the British leader must negotiate with her country's MPs rather than the EU.

Mr Barnier said it was up to Britain's government and Parliament to find a way forward with less than three weeks to go before the scheduled departure date.

"We held talks over the weekend and the negotiations now are between the government in London and the Parliament in London," Mr Barnier said in Brussels ahead of Brexit discussions with envoys from the other 27 member states.

Mrs May was expected to update lawmakers later yesterday on what changes, if any, she has secured to her EU divorce deal which was agreed with the bloc last year but overwhelmingly rejected by British MPs in January.

Following that crushing defeat, she has agreed to renegotiate certain unpopular aspects of the agreement and hold another vote today.

But as the British Parliament prepares to reassess the deal, the premier has little to show for her efforts, prompting warnings of another humiliating loss. "Discussions are ongoing between ourselves and the EU," Mrs May's spokesman told reporters, insisting that today's vote would take place as planned.

Failure means Britain could end 46 years of ties with its closest trading partner on March 29 with no new arrangements in place, causing huge disruption on both sides of the Channel. It would also raise the possibility of a delay to Brexit, with further votes on leaving without a deal and postponing Britain's departure date set for later in the week if Mrs May's deal fails.

While Europhiles in Mrs May's Conservative Party would welcome a delay as a possible precursor to a second referendum on EU membership, Eurosceptics strongly oppose it.

Influential opposition Labour MP Yvette Cooper urged Mrs May "to accept that her approach is not working", warning that MPs were ready to try to wrest control of the process.

Loyal ministers concede the deal is not perfect but say it is the best way to move forward.

In the face of a revolt within her Cabinet, Mrs May has promised that if MPs defeat her plan, they will be able to vote tomorrow on whether to leave the EU with no deal, or vote the following day on seeking a delay.

But any postponement would have to be approved by the leaders of the other 27 nations, who are next meeting at a Brussels summit on March 21 to 22 - a week before Brexit day.

The Brexit deal was struck over more than a year of negotiations, and covers Britain's financial settlement, expatriate rights, the Irish border and plans for a transition period. But British MPs on all sides were swift to condemn it for a variety of reasons and it was rejected in January by 432 votes to 202.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 12, 2019, with the headline 'May rushes to finalise Brexit deal before Parliament votes'. Print Edition | Subscribe