The UK parliament has authorised Prime Minister Theresa May to reopen negotiations with the European Union to replace a controversial Irish border guarantee within her Brexit deal, in a move that immediately received a flat rejection from Brussels.
Two weeks after resoundingly rejecting the divorce agreement May spent a year and a half negotiating with the bloc, members of parliament on Tuesday backed a proposal intended to send her back to Brussels with a stronger mandate to seek changes that were more likely to win their support.
At the same time, they also passed a non-binding amendment ruling out a potentially chaotic “no-deal” exit.
But they failed to vote through what is seen as a more important plan – backed by European supporters – that would have tried to force through a Brexit delay if no new deal with the EU emerged by February 26.
“Tonight, a majority of honourable members have said they would support a deal with changes to the backstop,” May, leader of the ruling Conservative Party, said.
“It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in the house for leaving the EU with a deal,” May said, adding she would seek “legally binding changes”.
The Irish backstop is an insurance policy that aims to prevent the reintroduction of a hard border between EU member, Ireland, and the British province of Northern Ireland, a crucial part of a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of sectarian violence and preserve frictionless trade.
However, critics said it could bind the UK to the EU’s rules indefinitely.
The proposal put forward by influential Conservative legislator Graham Brady and passed by 317 votes to 301, called for the backstop to be replaced with unspecified “alternative arrangements”, and said parliament would support May’s Brexit deal if such a change was made.
The British pound quickly fell amid fears May would not be able to convince Brussels to reenter negotiations, with Brussels repeatedly saying it does not want to reopen a treaty signed off by the other 27 EU leaders.
Speaking immediately after the vote in parliament, a spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said the backstop was part of the withdrawal deal and not up for negotiation, a stance echoed by the Irish government.
“This is a deal which was negotiated with the UK, by the UK, signed off by the UK and the prime minister – and now it looks as though this evening, essentially, there is a row-back and a reneging on the commitments that were made,” said Irish European Affairs minister Helen McEntee.
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said there could be no renegotiation and demanded a “credible” British proposal.
If the British parliament cannot find a majority for a way forward, the UK will leave the largest global trading bloc without any deal, a scenario that businesses fear will bring chaos to the world’s fifth-biggest economy.
Neither May nor her ministers spelt out what compromises she would seek from the EU, but suggestions include securing a time limit to the backstop or allowing a unilateral exit clause – elements that defeat its purpose, according to the EU.