UK leader pushes Brexit deal with frustrated EU, Parliament

LONDON — British Prime Minister Theresa May refused to admit defeat for her European Union divorce deal Monday, despite deadlocked talks with the bloc a day before Parliament is scheduled to reconsider the plan it has already rejected once before.

The House of Commons is scheduled to decide Tuesday whether to approve the withdrawal agreement it resoundingly voted down in January. There are few signs of a big shift in opinion since then, with lawmakers still split over whether to leave the EU, and if so on what terms.

The EU, meanwhile, is frustrated at what it sees as the inability of Britain’s weak and divided government to lay out a clear vision for Brexit — and because May is seeking changes to an agreement she helped negotiate.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said Monday the EU was “open and willing” to hold talks with the U.K. but “no further meetings at (a) political level are scheduled.”

“It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week,” Schinas said.

May’s spokesman, James Slack, said “talks are ongoing” among lower-level negotiators and there was “a shared determination by both sides to find a solution.”

The British leader has spoken by phone to eight EU national leaders since Friday, including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, without any sign of a breakthrough.

May spoke to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Sunday and Monday amid speculation the British leader might dash to meet Juncker and other EU leaders in Strasbourg, France, a seat of the European Parliament.

The prime minister’s office said a trip was not confirmed, though Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said May planned to go to Strasbourg later Monday “to try to finalize an agreement, if that’s possible.”

British lawmakers’ concerns about the divorce deal center on a provision designed to keep an open border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the other 27 EU countries in order to remove the need for checks until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

Brexit-supporting lawmakers in the U.K. fear the backstop could be used to bind Britain to EU regulations indefinitely, and May wants to revise the deal to reassure opponents that it would only apply temporarily.

The EU is unwilling to reopen the 585-page Brexit agreement, though it has offered what it says are legally binding promises that the backstop will not be permanent.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Monday that Juncker and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier made “a multitude of suggestions” over the weekend on the Irish border backstop.

“I think that an important offer has again been made to Britain, and now it is, of course, for Britain to respond to these offers,” she said in Berlin.

If Parliament throws out May’s deal again, lawmakers will vote 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.

May warned last week that any delay could mean “we may never leave the EU at all.”

Hard-line Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative Party said she should postpone Tuesday’s vote rather than risk another crushing defeat.

May’s spokesman, Slack, said the vote “will take place tomorrow,” but it was unclear exactly what motion would be put to lawmakers. It is due to be published later Monday.

May has staked her political reputation on securing an exit deal with the EU, and is under mounting pressure to quit if it is defeated again. She survived a bid to oust her through a no-confidence vote in December, so can’t be forced from office for a year.

Conservative lawmaker Nicky Morgan said May’s position will become “less and less tenable” if she suffers more defeats in Parliament this week.

“If the votes go this week in a way which means that the prime minister’s policy as she has set out and stuck to rigidly over the course of the last two-and-a-bit a years is taken away, dismantled slowly by Parliament this week, I think it would be very difficult for the prime minister to stay in office for very much longer,” Morgan told the BBC.

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