Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019.

Frank Augstein/AP Photo

UK lawmakers prepare to deliver verdict on EU divorce deal

January 15, 2019 - 8:22 am
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By Jill Lawless and Danica Kirka, Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British lawmakers were preparing to deliver their verdict on Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal with the European Union on Tuesday after more than two years of political upheaval.

All signs point to it receiving a resounding thumbs-down from Parliament, a development that would throw British politics further into turmoil, just 10 weeks before Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29.

Despite a last-ditch plea from May for legislators to give the deal "a second look," it faces deep opposition from both sides of Britain's divide over Europe. Pro-Brexit lawmakers say the deal will leave Britain bound indefinitely to EU rules, while pro-EU politicians favor an even closer economic relationship with the bloc.

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That leaves the agreement facing likely defeat on a day that could bring a very British mix of high drama, low insults and convoluted parliamentary procedure. The government and opposition parties ordered lawmakers to cancel all other plans to be on hand for the crucial vote. One Labour legislator, Tulip Siddiq, delayed the scheduled cesarean birth of her son so she could attend.

Environment Secretary Michael Gove urged colleagues not to let their visions of a perfect Brexit get in the way of what he said was a good deal.

"The real danger is if people do not vote for the government this evening, we face either a no-deal Brexit, with the short-term economic damage that would bring, or worse: no Brexit at all," Gove told the BBC.

Lawmakers are scheduled to vote Tuesday evening, after the last of five days of debate on the deal struck between May's government and the EU in November. May postponed a vote on the deal in December to avoid a resounding defeat, and there are few signs sentiment has changed significantly since then.

In the last few weeks May has sought new reassurances on the deal's most contentious section, an insurance policy known as the "backstop" designed to prevent the reintroduction of border controls between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

But assurances from EU leaders that the backstop is intended as a temporary measure of last resort have failed to win over many skeptics, and the EU is adamant that it will not renegotiate the 585-page withdrawal agreement.

In a sign of the widespread opposition, Parliament's unelected upper chamber, the House of Lords, voted by 321 to 152 late Monday in favor of a motion saying May's deal would damage Britain's economic prosperity, internal security and global influence, while also rejecting the idea of leaving the EU without a deal.

The Lords' vote has no direct effect on the fate of May's deal.

May says rejecting the agreement would lead either to a reversal of Brexit — overturning voters' decision in a 2016 referendum — or to Britain leaving the bloc without a deal. Economists warn that an abrupt break from the EU could batter the British economy and bring chaotic scenes at borders, ports and airports.

Former education minister Nicky Morgan, who said she planned to vote for May's agreement, warned that the U.K. wasn't ready for the economic upheaval of a no-deal Brexit.

"There are millions of people in this country watching Westminster and Parliament very anxiously today," she told the BBC.

If Parliament votes down the deal, May has until Monday to come up with a new proposal. So far, May has refused publicly to speculate on a possible "Plan B."

Some Conservatives expect her to seek further talks with EU leaders on changes before bringing a tweaked version of the bill back to Parliament.

Germany's foreign minister played down the possibility of May getting a better deal.

Heiko Maas told reporters in Strasbourg that while there would probably be new talks with the EU, he doesn't believe that "completely new solutions" will be offered "that are not related to what has been negotiated and decided on so far."

German news agency dpa reported Maas said that he's "skeptical that the entire agreement can be re-opened."

May's position will be precarious if her deal is defeated by a large margin. The main opposition Labour Party says it will call a no-confidence vote in the government if the deal is defeated in an attempt to trigger a general election.

The party has not disclosed the timing of such a motion, which could come as early as Tuesday night. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told colleagues on Monday that a no-confidence vote was "coming soon."

Amid the uncertainty, some members of Parliament from both government and opposition parties are exploring ways to use parliamentary procedures to wrest control of the Brexit process away from the government, so that lawmakers by majority vote could specify a new plan for Britain's EU exit.

But with no clear majority in Parliament for any single alternate course, there is a growing chance that Britain may seek to postpone its departure date while politicians work on a new plan.

Business groups appealed for lawmakers to back the deal to provide certainty about the future.

Mike Hawes, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, said lawmakers "hold the future of the British automotive industry — and the hundreds and thousands of jobs it supports — in their hands.

"Brexit is already causing us damage, in output, costs and jobs, but this does not compare with the catastrophic consequences of being cut adrift from our biggest trading partner overnight," he said.

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Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.

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