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PM Theresa May heads to Brussels, ministers talk up Brexit

Published: Updated:

UK government ministers talked up the chances of salvaging a Brexit deal as Prime Minister Theresa May prepared for more meetings in Brussels on Wednesday that few in the European Union believe can overcome the deadlock in negotiations.

Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, but diplomats say London effectively now has less than a month to find a solution, as it would have to be agreed about a week before a regular summit of the bloc’s national leaders on March 21-22.

The EU refuses to bin a protocol on the Irish border which prompted UK lawmakers to reject May’s deal last month. Complicating May’s task in finding a solution, three members of her ruling Conservative Party quit on Wednesday over the government’s “disastrous handling of Brexit”.

Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt said on Wednesday he remained “hopeful” of a resolution. He stressed the role of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox in being persuaded by concessions from the EU to change his legal advice that the so-called Irish “backstop” could bind Britain forever to EU rules.

Many on the continent stress that the backstop – an insurance policy for avoiding customs checks on the new EU-UK border with Britain’s troubled province of Northern Ireland – was proposed by May herself and gives Britain benefits in trade that EU states do not want to last longer than needed.

On both sides, officials highlight a determination to put in place, as stated in November’s Withdrawal Agreement, “alternative arrangements” to allow goods to cross the Irish border unchecked while also, through the use of new technology, to respect differing UK and EU customs and other rules.

However, Brussels has been resisting a push by May, forced by rebels in her own Conservative party, to reopen that treaty to replace the backstop with agreed alternatives now or put a time limit on the backstop or give Britain a veto on its use.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, who has been shuttling to Brussels with Cox and is due back later in the week, said on Tuesday that alternatives involving technology would avoid the need for the backstop after a status-quo transition period ends.

But he did not mention those being part of a revised exit treaty. British finance minister Philip Hammond said on Tuesday it was clear the EU would not now consider alternatives to the Irish backstop but that such options could be valuable in the future.

PM Theresa May said on Wednesday she would bring a vote on a revised Brexit deal back to parliament as soon as possible but only when it was the right time to do so after securing changes to it from the European Union.

“Obviously we are in these discussions with the European Union and we will bring a vote back to this house when it is possible to bring a deal that deals with the issue that the House of Commons has raised,” she told parliament.

“We have listened to the House of Commons, we are working on the views of the House of Commons with the European Union, and we will bring a vote back when it is the right time to do so.”