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Brexit: Theresa May in last-ditch warning to EU over backstop

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Theresa May at the European Council HQ in Brussels, February 7, 2019.
Theresa May at the European Council HQ in Brussels, February 7, 2019. -
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Theresa May is seeking to turn the tables on the EU, as both sides go into a critical weekend deadlocked ahead of a decisive Brexit vote in the House of Commons next week.

In response to calls from Brussels for the UK to put forward new ideas over the Irish backstop, the British prime minister is putting the onus on Brussels to make concessions.

“The decisions that the European Union makes over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote,” May will say on Friday, according to pre-released extracts from her speech.

UK politicians will vote again next week on the EU-UK withdrawal deal, which was heavily defeated in parliament in January. The prime minister was then given a mandate to seek changes to the so-called backstop – the safety measure to ensure a frictionless land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland after Brexit.

Theresa May wants legally binding assurances that the UK will not be permanently stuck in a customs union with the EU. Brussels says reassurances can be beefed up, but the European Commission and EU27 leaders have refused to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement already struck.

“Just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice, too. We are both participants in this process. It is in the European interest for the UK to leave with a deal,” May is expected to say in a speech in Grimsby, northern England.

The European Commission told Britain to rework its backstop proposal by Friday, having said earlier in the week that “no solution” had been identified.

Guy Verhofstadt, Brexit coordinator for the European Parliament which must also ratify an exit deal, has said an additional document negotiators are working on must not “put into question” the fundamentals of the withdrawal deal’s original text.

The UK government’s chief legal adviser, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, returned empty-handed from talks in Brussels this week. He has said British plans to solve the backstop issue are “as clear as day”.

But the EU has consistently refused to allow a time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism to be imposed on the backstop.

Unless there is some kind of breakthrough this weekend, then the British government faces the likelihood that the withdrawal deal will again be rejected by MPs in the second “meaningful vote” which is expected on Tuesday.

If that happens, it is thought likely that MPs will reject exiting the bloc without an agreement, and instruct the government to ask the EU for an extension to the Brexit process.

As things stand, the United Kingdom is set by law to leave the European Union on March 29 – three weeks from Friday.

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