LONDON — Prime Minister Theresa May scrambled to win last-minute changes from the European Union to her Brexit deal Monday, a day before a crucial vote in Britain’s Parliament that could derail the country’s withdrawal from the EU — and cost May her job.
May flew by Royal Air Force jet to Strasbourg, France, for talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, seeking a way to get reluctant British legislators to back a deal that they resoundingly rejected in January.
The House of Commons is due to hold a second vote on the plan Tuesday, but there are few signs either British lawmakers or EU leaders are prepared to make big shifts to stave off another defeat.
The EU is unwilling to reopen an agreement it spent a year and a half negotiating, while British legislators remain split over whether to leave the bloc and, if so, on what terms.
Britain is due to pull out of the EU in less than three weeks, on March 29, but the government has not been able to win parliamentary approval for its agreement with the bloc on withdrawal terms and future relations. The impasse has raised fears of a chaotic “no-deal” Brexit that could mean major disruption for businesses and people in Britain and the 27 remaining EU countries.
“This is a government in chaos, with a country in chaos because of this mess,” Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said.
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. As a result, she cannot be forced from office for a year.
The EU is frustrated at what it sees as the inability of Britain’s weak and divided government to lay out a clear vision for Brexit. It is irritated, too, that Britain is seeking changes to an agreement that May herself helped negotiate.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that the EU is “open and willing” to hold talks but that Britain needs to present new proposals for the bloc to consider.
“It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week,” Schinas said.
May’s spokesman, James Slack, insisted that talks were continuing and that there was “a shared determination by both sides to find a solution.”
British lawmakers’ concerns about the divorce deal center on a provision designed to keep an open border between Britain’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 EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
Brexit-supporting lawmakers in Britain fear the backstop could be used to bind the country to EU regulations indefinitely. May wants to revise the deal to reassure opponents that the backstop would be only temporary.
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.
May 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.
Merkel said Monday that Juncker and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier had made “a multitude of suggestions” over the weekend on the 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.
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.
May warned last week that any delay could mean “we may never leave the EU at all.”
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 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.
Alan Wager, a Brexit expert at the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank, said Parliament this week could decisively rule out both May’s deal and a no-deal departure.
That, in turn, would make such options as a new Brexit referendum or a “softer” withdrawal from the EU lot more likely, he said.
“Finally, the House of Commons is going to have to make a final judgment on what it wants in terms of Brexit,” he said.
Casert reported from Strasbourg, France. Danica Kirka in London, Lorne Cook in Brussels and Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.
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