British Parliament backs PM Theresa May to reopen Brexit deal

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British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to put forth a revised deal to the House of Commons by Feb 13, 2019. PHOTO: REUTERS

LONDON - British Prime Minister Theresa May will seek "alternative arrangements" with the European Union to replace the Irish backstop after Members of Parliament on Tuesday (Jan 29) gave her the backing she needed to attempt to renegotiate "legally binding changes" for her existing Brexit deal.

By a close 16 votes -317 to 301 votes - Parliament backed an amendment proposed by Conservative lawmaker Graham Brady, calling for an alternative to the controversial Irish backstop.

The backstop, which is 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 PM May's exit deal. It is strongly opposed by hardline Brexiteers who say it binds Britain with the EU in perpetuity.

In Brussels, the EU immediately responded to the vote by insisting that the deal is "not open for renegotiation".

A spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said: "The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

"The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation."

Parliament also voted down an amendment, put forward by the Labour Party's Yvette Cooper, 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 February.

Had that amendment gone through, the EU would have been ready to consider delaying the divorce process beyond March 29, Tuesday's report in The Financial Times said.

Mr Tusk's spokesman said: "If the UK's intentions for the future partnership were to evolve, the EU would be prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the content and the level of ambition of the political declaration... Should there be a UK reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 would stand ready to consider it and decide by unanimity."

Mr Tusk added that the EU would continue with contingency preparations and the ratification of the existing withdrawal agreement, reported Reuters.

Despite the EU's openness to "alternative arrangements", no workable options were found in two years of negotiations, the report added.

PM May, however, lost the vote on a non-binding amendment that rules out Britain bowing out of the bloc without a deal, signalling that Parliament opposes leaving the EU without a negotiated agreement.

MPs resoundingly rejected two weeks ago the Brexit deal PM May had agreed on with the bloc in November, but her next moves come at a critical time, with Britain's scheduled exit from the EU - a bloc which it has been part of since 1973 - just two months away.

A Reuters report said that diplomats and officials in Brussels speculated PM May could return later this week to renegotiate her deal.

PM May vowed to put forth a revised deal to the House of Commons by Feb 13.

Addressing the House after the series of votes, she 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."

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".

On Tuesday, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also agreed to meet the PM for talks, having previously rejected her numerous invitations.

The pound, which had hit a 2½-month high on the hopes that a no-deal Brexit would be avoided, also dipped sharply following Tuesday's series of votes. It fell by more than a cent against the US dollar after trading at about US$1.32 (S$1.78) earlier in the day to a low of US$1.3088. It bounced back in overnight trading to $1.309 at 5.30am GMT today (1.30pm Singapore time).

Mr David De Cremer, provost's chair, professor in management and organisations at the NUS Business School at the National University of Singapore said that in the lead-up to Brexit, there will be a repositioning of the economic and political dynamics of Asian countries with the UK.

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

He said: "We would like to see the EU showing more engagement in Asia, as that has been quite limited compared to the UK's. 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.

"The idea behind Brexit is not rational. It is not based on economic logic; it is based purely on sentiment and nostalgia."

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