LONDON – Pro-Brexit British lawmakers were deciding Tuesday whether last-minute changes to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal were enough to overcome their opposition to her plan to lead the U.K. out of the European Union.
The House of Commons is due to vote later on the divorce deal, a day after talks with the EU produced assurances that a contentious section of the agreement couldn’t be used to tie Britain to the bloc indefinitely – and less than three weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29.
Lawmakers defeated May’s deal by a whopping 230 votes in January, and it’s far from clear whether the changes would be enough to persuade enough to change their minds. May says the changes are legally binding, but Brexiteer politicians still need convincing.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox dealt a blow to May’s hopes with a legal opinion saying the changes “reduce the risk” Britain could be stuck inside EU regulations indefinitely – but did not eliminate it. The two-page opinion said the U.K. could still not extract itself from the deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.
Cox said that if U.K.-EU negotiations became stalled through “intractable differences,” Britain would have “no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement.”
The pound, which had risen on hopes the deal would be passed, slumped by more than 1 per cent against the dollar after Cox’s assessment, to trade at $1.3014.
Even before Cox gave his opinion, leading pro-Brexit Conservative Jacob Rees-Mogg expressed skepticism.
“I’m not sure that the agreements with the EU are a major change,” he said.
Other EU nations welcomed the overnight agreement, and urged British politicians to seize the chance to back the deal and ensure an orderly departure.
German EU affairs minister Michael Roth, called it “a far-reaching compromise.” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a Twitter message that he was “pleased with the agreement,” adding: “An orderly #Brexit is crucial for both the EU and the UK. There is no alternative.”
But the main opposition Labour Party maintained its opposition to the deal. Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer expressed skepticism about whether May had won substantive concessions.
“Having studied the documents, I would be surprised if they are sufficient to enable the Attorney General to change the central plank of his December legal advice,” Starmer said on Twitter.
May flew to Strasbourg, France, late Monday for talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. At a news conference following the meeting, they announced changes designed to overcome lawmakers’ concerns about provisions designed to ensure the border between EU member Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland remains open after Brexit.
The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place. Brexit supporters in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely.
May said documents to be added to the deal provided “legally binding” assurances that the backstop would be temporary and that Britain would have a way to get out of it if the EU failed to negotiate in good faith. The two sides also agreed to continue working on technology that would do away with the need for border checks. However, the text of the 585-page withdrawal agreement remains unchanged.
“Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and deliver on the instruction of the British people,” May said.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the deal agreed Monday night provided “additional clarity, reassurance and guarantees sought by some to eliminate doubt or fears, however unreal, that the goal was to trap the U.K. indefinitely in the backstop.
“It is not, these doubts and fears can be put to bed,” he said.
The EU warned British politicians that negotiations will not be reopened if Parliament rejects the deal again.
“In politics, sometimes you get a second chance. It is what you do with this second chance that counts. Because there will be no third chance,” Juncker said
“Let’s be crystal clear about the choice: it is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.
If Parliament throws out May’s deal again on Tuesday, lawmakers will vote over the following two days on whether to leave the EU without an agreement – an idea likely to be rejected – or to ask the EU to delay Brexit beyond the scheduled March 29 departure date.
Some British lawmakers underscored that warning, telling their Brexit-backing colleagues that rejecting the deal could lead to Britain’s departure being postponed indefinitely.
“Today is our Hotel California moment. If we don’t check out tonight, we may never leave,” tweeted Conservative legislator Bob Seely.
Raf Casert in Strasbourg, France and Pan Pylas in London contributed to this story.