UK leader may let Parliament decide on Brexit backstop

(AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Protestors demonstrate opposite Parliament against Britain’s Brexit split from Europe, in London, Thursday, Dec. 6. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May’s effort to win support for her Brexit agreement comes amid reports in British newspapers Thursday, predicting that Parliament could reject the deal by more than 100 votes. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May said Thursday she may give Parliament a greater role in implementing her controversial Brexit deal as she sought to rescue the agreement from a widely expected defeat.

May’s efforts to win support came as British newspapers reported that the House of Commons could reject her divorce deal with the European Union by more than 100 votes when they vote on it Tuesday. Lawmakers opened a third day of debate on the agreement Thursday, focusing on economic issues that could affect Britons for generations.

May’s comments focused on the so-called backstop, which could keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU if the two sides can’t agree on another way to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU. The proposal has sparked opposition from all sides because of concerns it would drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. while leaving the country tied to the EU indefinitely.

May stressed in an interview with the BBC that it would be up the U.K. to decide whether to trigger the backstop and that one way to ease the concerns of lawmakers would be to let Parliament make this decision.

“There would be arguments on different sides at that point in time,” she said. “I think people are concerned about the role of the U.K. in making these decisions, and the obvious (thing to do) in terms of the role of the U.K. is for it to be Parliament that make these decisions.”

As she doggedly presses on, May is sticking to her mantra that the divorce deal she negotiated over the past 2½ years will allow the U.K. to take back control of its money, laws and borders. The agreement is the only way to avoid a no-deal Brexit that would have dire consequences for the British economy and to head off those who are trying to use the debate to prevent the country from leaving the EU, she said.

“There are those who want to frustrate Brexit and overturn the vote of the British people,” May told the BBC. “That’s not right.”

But May is facing opposition from both sides of the Brexit debate.

British lawmakers who favor leaving the EU say the prime minister’s deal keeps Britain bound too closely to the bloc while those who want to maintain close ties argue that it creates barriers between the U.K. and its biggest trading partner.

Both sides also worry that May’s Brexit deal leaves many details about the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU to further negotiations that will take place after Britain leaves on March 29. They fear that would leave Britain in a much poorer negotiating position with its former EU partners.

Looming over those talks would be the backstop. Legal advice from the British government’s attorney general released Wednesday underscored the fact that the U.K. couldn’t leave the backstop without approval from the EU.

The government has tried to blunt opposition to the deal by highlighting the risks of a no-deal Brexit, where Britain leaves the EU but has no trade deal or other common regulations in place.

Treasury chief Philip Hammond told lawmakers Thursday that it was “simply a delusion” to think that a better Brexit deal can be renegotiated and that a no-deal Brexit would be “too awful to contemplate.”

“We need to be honest with ourselves. The alternatives to this deal are no deal or no Brexit,” he said. “Either will leave us a fractured society and a divided nation.”

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, also tried to quash the hopes of anyone who thought another deal with the EU might be possible. He reiterated Thursday that the May agreement on Brexit was the only one on the table.

“I must say once again, today, calmly and clearly — it is the only and the best possible agreement,” Barnier said in a speech at the European Committee of the Regions.

Amid fears that time is running out, some British lawmakers are looking to the European Court of Justice for help.

The court is scheduled to rule Monday on whether Britain can change its mind about leaving the EU. A top adviser to the court earlier this week issued a non-binding opinion that the U.K. can unilaterally revoke its decision to leave.

Advocates say unilaterally revoking Brexit could give Britain the option to “stop the clock,” giving the country an alternative to the options of May’s deal or no-deal. The case comes as pressure builds for a second referendum on Brexit, something May has ruled out, citing the 52 percent of the population that voted for Brexit in 2016.

“A lot of the people who are calling for a referendum want that because they hope that there’s going to be a different answer,” May said. “I don’t think that’s right. We asked people the question; they gave us the answer. Let’s deliver on that first vote.”

As if to underscore the point, May shrugged off suggestions Thursday that she would delay a vote on her Brexit deal in Parliament to avoid a stinging defeat in the House of Commons.

Former Prime Minister Tony Blair said that May faced the prospect of “hitting a brick wall at speed” and predicted that no consensus would found in the House of Commons on Brexit.

“Personally, I don’t see what the point is in going down to a huge defeat,” he said.

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