Few signs of breakthrough as Prime Minister Theresa May set to unveil Brexit Plan B

Associated Press

Prime Minister Theresa May was set to unveil her new plan to break Britain's Brexit deadlock on Monday — one expected to look a lot like the old plan that was decisively rejected by Parliament last week.

May was scheduled to brief the House of Commons on how she intends to proceed. There were few signs she planned to make radical changes to her deal, though she may seek alterations to its most contentious section, an insurance policy known as the "backstop" that is intended to guarantee there are no customs checks along the border between EU member Ireland and the U.K.'s Northern Ireland after Brexit.

The EU insists it will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.

"This is the text we all invested ourselves in," Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said as she arrived for a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels.

British lawmakers are due to vote on May's "Plan B," and possible amendments, on Jan. 29, two months before Britain is due to leave the EU.

Britain and the EU sealed a divorce deal in November after months of tense negotiations. But the agreement has been rejected by both sides of Britain's divide over Europe. Brexit-backing lawmakers say it will leave the U.K. tethered to the bloc's rules and unable to forge an independent trade policy. Pro-Europeans argue it is inferior to the frictionless economic relationship Britain currently enjoys as an EU member.

After her deal was thrown out last week by a crushing 432-202 vote in Parliament, May said she would consult with lawmakers from all parties to find a new way forward.

But Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn called the cross-party meetings a "stunt," and other opposition leaders said the prime minister didn't heed their entreaties to rule out a "no-deal" Brexit and retain close economic ties with the EU.

Instead, May looks set to try to win over pro-Brexit Conservatives and her party's Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. Both groups say they won't back the deal unless the border backstop is removed.

May's spokesman, James Slack, said that May's talks with opposition lawmakers were "genuine," and that a "significant number" had expressed concerns about the backstop.

The backstop proposes to keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to avoid checks and border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and Ireland. It is meant as a temporary measure that would last until a permanent solution is found. But pro-Brexit U.K. lawmakers fear Britain could become trapped in it, indefinitely bound by EU trade rules.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks with EU colleagues Monday by suggesting the problem could be solved by setting a five-year time limit on the backstop.

The idea got a cool reception. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that "putting a time-limit on an insurance mechanism, which is what the backstop is, effectively means that it's not a backstop at all."

Britain's political impasse over Brexit is fueling concerns that the country may crash out of the EU on March 29 with no agreement in place to cushion the shock. That could see tariffs imposed on goods moving between Britain and the EU, sparking logjams at ports and shortages of essential supplies.

Labour Party Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said Sunday that a no-deal Brexit would be "catastrophic," and it was "inevitable" Britain will have to ask the EU to extend the two-year countdown to exit.

Several groups of lawmakers are trying to use parliamentary rules and amendments to May's plan to block the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.

One of those legislators, Labour's Yvette Cooper, said May was shirking her responsibility to the country by refusing to take "no deal" off the table.

"I think she knows that she should rule out 'no deal' in the national interest because it would be so damaging," Cooper told the BBC. "She's refusing to do so, and I think she's hoping that Parliament will do this for her. That is not leadership."

EU leaders, meanwhile, expressed frustration with British indecision.

"We now know what they don't want in London," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. "Now we must at last find out what they want."

Chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that while the EU wouldn't amend the legally binding withdrawal agreement, it was ready to adjust the political declaration — a non-binding statement on future relations that forms the second part of the divorce deal.

Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Josep Borrell said it was crucial to find out what type of deal Britain's Parliament would support.

"We cannot keep negotiating something this way and when everything is negotiated, the U.K. Parliament refuses," he said in Brussels. "We have to have the guarantee that the proposal has the parliamentary support not to be refused again."

Raf Casert reported from Brussels. Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this story.

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