LONDON (AP) – The European Union says that the current agreement with the U.K. remains the “best and only way” to ensure an orderly Brexit, after British Prime Minister Theresa May vowed to try to overhaul the deal.
May says Parliament has made its wishes clear and that she will now seek “legally binding” changes to the Brexit withdrawal agreement reached with the EU.
She spoke after British lawmakers voted to try to renegotiate the Brexit divorce agreement with the EU to remove a contentious Irish border measure.
The House of Commons voted 317 to 301 to seek to replace the Irish border “backstop” that keeps the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland free of checkpoints. British lawmakers also passed a non-binding motion calling on the government to rule out leaving the European Union on March 29 without a divorce agreement.
However, EU Council President Donald Tusk’s office said that the “backstop” on the Irish border which Britain seeks to renegotiate is “not open for renegotiation.”
The EU did leave other options for negotiation open.
Tusk spokesman Preben Aamann said that “if the U.K.’s intention for the future partnership were to evolve, the EU would be prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the content and the level of ambition of the political declaration,” referring to the political text to complement the legal withdrawal agreement.
EU leaders have ruled out reopening the Brexit deal. French President Emmanuel Macron said the agreement – 585 pages of legally binding text – “is the best accord possible. It is not re-negotiable.”
The Brexit process has grown increasingly surreal since Parliament rejected May’s divorce deal two weeks ago, leaving Britain lurching toward a cliff-edge “no-deal” departure from the bloc.
Businesses fear economic chaos if Britain crashes out of the bloc without a deal regulating the terms of the divorce.
The amendment ruling out a “no-deal” departure passed 318 votes to 310 on Tuesday night. It is not legally binding but has political force as an expression of the will of Parliament.
Trying to break the Brexit deadlock, earlier on Tuesday May urged lawmakers to send the EU an “emphatic message” that they would not accept an Irish border guarantee in the withdrawal deal – a provision May and the EU both approved late last year.
The House of Commons debated and voted Tuesday on competing proposals for next steps that have been submitted by both pro-Brexit and pro-EU legislators.
May insisted her agreement could still win Parliament’s backing if it was tweaked to alleviate concerns about the Irish border measure, known as the backstop. The backstop would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to remove the need for checks along the border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.
The border is crucial to the divorce deal because it will be the only land frontier between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit, and because the free flow of people and goods underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Opposition to the backstop by pro-Brexit lawmakers – who fear it will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU – helped sink May’s deal on Jan. 15, when Parliament rejected it in a 432 to 202 vote.
May vowed to go to Brussels and seek “significant and legally binding change” to the backstop. May’s office said that might include an end date to ensure it is temporary or an exit clause for Britain. Both those ideas have been repeatedly rejected by the EU.
Ireland’s European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee, said British politicians needed to show “a bit of realism.”
“There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the U.K. and by the U.K.,” she said.
May’s approach drew praise from “hard-Brexit”-backing lawmakers who have often opposed her. Conservative lawmaker Steve Baker, a member of euroskeptic faction the European Research Group, said the group had agreed to back the amendment “to see if the PM can land a deal that will work.”
But the idea was scorned by their pro-EU colleagues.
Green Party legislator Caroline Lucas accused May of chasing “heated-up fantasies that have already been rejected by the EU.”
Lawmakers voted on a total of seven Brexit proposals Tuesday, including the border change supported by May and several measures that seek to rule out a “no-deal” Brexit. Parliamentarians backed two of those proposals.
Much of the business world says a no-deal Brexit would cause economic chaos by eliminating existing EU trade agreements and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its main export market.
Most members of Parliament oppose leaving without a deal, but they rejected several proposals that tried to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government and give it to Parliament so that lawmakers can stop Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal.
A motion by Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper that sought to postpone Britain’s departure was defeated, 321 votes to 298 votes, after some Labour members sided with the government, worried about being seen as obstructing Brexit.
Tuesday’s votes will not mark the end of Britain’s turmoil over Brexit. May said if she has not struck a new Brexit deal by Feb. 13, Parliament would get to vote, again, on what should happen next.