BERLIN/STRASBOURG • The European Union yesterday ruled out renegotiating a Brexit divorce treaty with Britain, even as Prime Minister Theresa May sought last-ditch assurances from the bloc to save her deal after postponing a parliamentary vote that she admitted she would lose.
Junior Brexit Minister Robin Walker said a Parliament vote on the government's next steps - whether or not Mrs May had a Brexit deal for them to approve - would take place before Jan 21.
British lawmakers had been scheduled to vote on the agreement on Monday. However, after a debate in which the deal came under attack not only from the opposition but also from many members of her own Conservative Party, Mrs May delayed the vote, acknowledging that her plans had faced defeat "by a significant margin".
In a frantic bid to save the deal, Mrs May yesterday rushed from London for breakfast in The Hague with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and then a meeting in Berlin with Europe's most powerful leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In rainy Berlin, a hitch with Mrs May's car door briefly trapped her inside, delaying her red carpet handshake with Dr Merkel.
Later in the day, she planned to travel to Brussels to meet EU leaders, with the union's heads of government set to meet tomorrow and on Friday.
However, the message from the EU was clear: It would give"clarifications", but would not countenance reopening the treaty.
Dr Merkel told lawmakers of her CDU/CSU bloc that she saw "no way to change" the agreement reached last month, said sources at a meeting of MPs.
Separately, European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker said in an address to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, "The deal we achieved is the best possible. It is the only deal pos-sible. There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation."
Mr Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, said to Mr Juncker: "The Parliament is exactly in line with you when it comes to Brexit. We won't be changing a position which has now been adopted."
The most contentious issue has been the Irish "backstop", an insurance policy that would keep Britain in a Customs union with the EU in the absence of a better way to avoid border checks between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
Mrs May's critics say it could leave Britain subject to EU rules indefinitely. Mr Juncker said neither side intended for the backstop ever to take effect, but it had to be part of the agreement.
"It is necessary for the entire coherence of what we have agreed. It is necessary for Britain and it is necessary for Ireland. Ireland will never be left alone," he said.
Mrs May had warned British lawmakers that if they rejected her deal, then the only other options were a disorderly no-deal divorce or a reversal of Brexit that would defy the will of those who voted for it.
However, Mrs May's retreat on the Parliament vote undermined the tenuous hold on power by a prime minister whose opponents, both inside and outside her party, have been speaking openly about trying to topple her.
It also left Britain's exit from the European Union, or Brexit, in limbo, with lawmakers and analysts alike saying it was anyone's guess what would happen next.
As investors and allies tried to work out the ultimate destination for the world's fifth-largest economy, rebel lawmakers in Mrs May's party said she had to go.
"If we can't go forward with her deal... then I am afraid the only way to change the policy is to change the prime minister, and I really think it is her duty to go," Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker said.
A leadership challenge is triggered if 48 Conservatives write letters demanding one to the chairman of the party's so-called 1922 committee, Mr Graham Brady.
Sky News reported yesterday that the required number of letters for a vote had been submitted.
Meanwhile, Parliament held an emergency debate yesterday on the postponement of the vote, called by Mr Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the opposition Labour Party - essentially a chance for lawmakers to vent their discontent.
Among Brexit opponents, there is mounting enthusiasm for a chance to have another say.
Many business chiefs fear a chaotic Brexit that they say would wreck their supply lines and hammer confidence in the British economy.
"We view the situation with a mixture of worry and hope," a chief executive of an FTSE-listed company said on condition of anonymity.
"The hope comes from the fact that it is now such chaos, it gets called off."