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Theresa May wins Brexit assurances from EU on eve of crucial vote

Published: Updated:

Prime Minister Theresa May won legally binding Brexit assurances from the European Union on Monday in a last ditch attempt to sway rebellious British lawmakers who have threatened to vote down her divorce deal again.

Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave on March 29, May rushed to Strasbourg to agree additional assurances with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Brexiteers in May’s party have accused her of surrendering to the EU and it was not clear if the assurances she agreed would be enough to win over the 116 additional lawmakers she needs reverse the crushing defeat her deal suffered on Jan. 15.

“Today we have secured legal changes,” May said in a late night news conference in Strasbourg beside Juncker, exactly 17 days before the United Kingdom is due to leave the EU.

“Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people,” May said.

May announced three documents - a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration - which she said were aimed at addressing the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed in November - the Irish backstop.

The backstop is an insurance policy aimed at avoiding controls on the sensitive border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland, though some British lawmakers worry it could trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely.

On news of the breakthrough, sterling, which has see-sawed on Brexit headlines, jumped 0.8 percent to $1.3250 in Asian trade and rallied to the strongest against the euro since mid-2017.

Last chance?

After two-and-a-half years of haggling with Britain over Brexit, Juncker cautioned that this was the last chance for Britain.

“There will be no third chance,” he said. “There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations; no further assurances of the re-assurances - if the meaningful vote tomorrow fails.”

“It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said. He said in a letter to EU summit chair Donald Tusk that if Britain didn’t leave by the May 23-26 elections, it would have to elect its own EU lawmakers.

The United Kingdom’s tortuous crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an extraordinary array of outcomes still possible, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum. The country voted to leave the EU in a 2016 plebiscite.

The British parliament on Jan. 15 voted to reject May’s deal by 230 votes, the biggest defeat for a government in modern British history.