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UK leader warns Brexit may never happen unless deal approved

Last Updated Mar 8, 2019 at 12:58 pm PDT

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech in Grimsby, north east England, Friday March 8, 2019. British lawmakers are due to vote for a second time Tuesday on the deal, which they overwhelmingly rejected in January. (Christopher Furlong/PA via AP)

LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May tried to pressure U.K. lawmakers Friday to support her Brexit deal, warning that Britain may never leave the European Union if they vote down the agreement next week.

Battling to stave off a second defeat for the unpopular divorce deal, May also implored the EU to help her make “one more push” to get the agreement through a skeptical Parliament.

British lawmakers are due to vote for a second time Tuesday on the deal, which they overwhelmingly rejected in January. If Parliament throws out the 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.

“Back it and the U.K. will leave the European Union,” May said. “Reject it and no one knows what will happen.”

In a speech to factory workers in the staunchly pro-Brexit northern England port town of Grimsby, May said a delay could lead to “more months and years arguing” over Britain’s departure from the EU.

“If we go down that road, we may never leave the EU at all,” May told workers at a Danish-owned wind-power factory.

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.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May gives a speech at the in Grimsby, north east England, Friday March 8, 2019. British lawmakers are due to vote for a second time Tuesday on the deal, which they overwhelmingly rejected in January. (Christopher Furlong/PA via AP)

The EU is unwilling to reopen the 585-page agreement, and last-minute negotiations have foundered, with the bloc’s leaders saying Britain hasn’t provided concrete proposals.

However, it made an offer Friday that it hopes can unblock the stalled Brexit negotiations. EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said the EU was willing to offer Britain “a legally binding interpretation” of the withdrawal agreement through an additional statement, rather than a reopening of the deal.

In a series of tweets, Barnier said the bloc would assure Britain that it “will not be forced into customs union against its will.”

“The EU will continue working intensively over the coming days to ensure that the U.K. leaves the EU with an agreement,” he tweeted.

It was unclear to what extent the offer would help May in her attempt to push the withdrawal agreement past her parliament next Tuesday.