GRIMSBY, England—UK Prime Minister Theresa May urged the European Union on March 8 to make “just one more push” to break the deadlock over Brexit by offering her changes to a deal to help persuade Britain’s deeply divided parliament to approve it.
With just three weeks left before Britain is due to leave the European Union, May has failed so far to get the changes to her divorce deal that she believes would win over lawmakers who handed the government a defeat of record proportions in January.
In a last-ditch appeal to the EU and to lawmakers at home, May spoke in the northern English port town of Grimsby to say that it’s time to end the uncertainty over Brexit and approve the deal on March 12.
Warning that lawmakers could risk putting Britain’s departure into doubt or triggering many more months of arguments over Britain’s biggest shift in foreign and trade policy for decades, May had a simple message: “Let’s get it done.”
“It needs just one more push to address the final, specific concerns of our parliament,” May told her audience in Grimsby, where 70 percent voted to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum.
“So let’s not hold back. Let’s do what is necessary for MPs [members of parliament] to back the deal on Tuesday,” said May, who at the end was criticized by a woman journalist for allowing so few female reporters to ask questions on Women’s Day. May replied, “You’ve had answers from a woman prime minister.”
London and Brussels are at loggerheads over the so-called Northern Irish backstop, an insurance policy to prevent the return of border controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland—the only land frontier between the United Kingdom and the bloc.
‘Sign of Desperation’
Under pressure from some lawmakers in her own Conservative Party, May wants legally binding assurances from the EU that Britain won’t be trapped permanently in the backstop, which would keep Britain in a customs union with the bloc.
Asked if she was responsible for the uncertainty that has forced many businesses to put off investment decisions, May again said there was only one way to ease their concerns—and that’s to vote for her deal and move on.
Otherwise, she said Brexit might never happen and voters would be betrayed. Or, she added, Britain could leave without a deal to soften the shock, a nightmare scenario for many companies.
Those arguments largely restated her well-worn line. Euroskeptics say her agreement doesn’t offer a clean break with the EU, while EU supporters want to maintain closer ties.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, said the appeal was “more like a sign of desperation.”
“These are very serious times. We don’t need any more delays and dithering by the government,” he told Sky News. “They’ve got to recognize her deal isn’t going to work, it doesn’t get support, and will not get through parliament.”
It’s the first time that May has turned directly to the EU, showing signs of frustration that talks to secure changes to the backstop had as yet produced no breakthrough.
That frustration was matched on the EU side. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the British, not the EU, had to compromise, and the decision to leave the bloc had been “a problem of their own creation.”
May desperately wants her plan to pass in Parliament on March 12. If it is defeated, lawmakers will be able to vote March 13 and March 14 on whether they want to leave the bloc without a deal, or ask for a delay to Brexit—all but wresting control of Brexit from the government.
Foreign minister Jeremy Hunt held out some hope that a deal was “entirely possible” in time for the vote.
By Elizabeth Piper