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WORLD | 11-03-2019 12:04

Britain braces for make-or-break Brexit vote

EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says negotiations to break a deadlock on a deal to leave the bloc are now between British Prime Minister Theresa May and members of Parliament.

The European Union's chief negotiator on Monday shut down hopes of a Brexit compromise with Brussels, saying it was up to Britain's government and parliament to find a way forward with less than three weeks to go before the scheduled departure date.

On the eve of a crucial vote in the House of Commons on Prime Minister Theresa May's divorce deal, Michel Barnier told AFP the British leader must negotiate with MPs rather than the EU.

"We held talks over the weekend and the negotiations now are between the government in London and the parliament in London," Barnier said in Brussels ahead of Brexit discussions with envoys from the other 27 member states.

May will update lawmakers later Monday on what changes, if any, she has secured to her EU divorce deal which was agreed with the bloc last year but overwhelmingly rejected by MPs in January.

Following that crushing defeat she agreed to renegotiate certain unpopular aspects of the agreement and hold another vote this Tuesday.

But as parliament prepares to reassess the deal, the prime minister has little to show for her efforts, prompting warnings of another humiliating loss.

"Discussions are ongoing between ourselves and the EU," May's spokesman told reporters, insisting that Tuesday's vote would take place as planned.

Failure means Britain could end 46 years of ties with its closest trading partner on March 29 with no new arrangements in place, causing huge disruption on both sides of the Channel.

It would also raise the possibility of a delay to Brexit, with further votes on leaving without a deal and postponing Britain's departure date set for later in the week if May's deal falls.

While europhiles in May's Conservative Party would welcome a delay as a possible precursor to a second referendum on EU membership, eurosceptics strongly oppose it.

'The clock is truly run down'

May and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker spoke by phone on Sunday night and agreed to remain in touch Monday, but no further technical talks between officials were scheduled, according to a European source.

Influential Labour opposition MP Yvette Cooper urged May "to accept that her approach is not working" and that now was the time "to pivot not dig in."

"The clock is truly run down, the can kicked and squashed, the road has run out," she said Monday, warning that MPs were ready to try to wrestle control of the process.

Loyal ministers concede the deal is not perfect but say it is the best way to move forward – and that rejecting it could put Brexit at risk.

In the face of a revolt within her split cabinet, May has promised that if MPs defeat her plan, they will be able to vote Wednesday on whether to leave the EU with no deal, or the following day on seeking a delay.

But any postponement would have to be approved by the leaders of the other 27 nations, who are next meeting at a Brussels summit on March 21-22 – a week before Brexit day.

Backstop 'trap'

The agreement was struck over more than a year of tough negotiations, and covers Britain's financial settlement, expatriate rights, the Irish border and plans for a transition period.

But MPs on all sides in London were swift to condemn it for a variety of reasons, and it was rejected in January by 432 votes to 202.

MPs then voted to ask May to seek changes to the most controversial element, the backstop arrangement intended to keep the Irish border open after Brexit.

This would keep Britain in the EU's customs union and parts of its single market until and unless another way – such as a trade deal – is found to avoid frontier checks.

Many MPs fear it is a "trap" to keep them tied to EU rules, but Brussels has rejected calls for a time limit or unilateral exit clause.

Main points of draft Brexit agreement

British MPs will vote on a draft Brexit deal on Tuesday aimed at ensuring a smooth exit from the European Union to be followed by a transition period that could last until 2022. The agreement was voted down overwhelmingly by parliament in January but the government is hoping that the looming March 29 Brexit deadline will persuade many MPs to change their minds. Brexit hardliners have objected in particular to the agreement's "backstop" provisions on the Irish border, which they fear could lock Britain indefinitely into a customs union with the EU. The government has been holding more discussions with EU officials in an attempt to agree a compromise on the backstop. The other main points in the agreement are the protection of citizens' rights and Britain's final bill to the EU.

Following are the main points of the deal:

Transition period

A transition period lasting until December 31, 2020 would preserve the status quo and allow time for Britain and the EU to negotiate their future relations. It would also allow governments, businesses and individual citizens to adapt to life after Brexit. The only major difference during that period is that Britain would no longer be represented in the EU institutions. Britain would continue to participate in the EU Customs Union and the Single Market and must respect EU rules on free movement of goods, capital, services and labour. The transition period can be extended once for a period of one or two years, meaning it could last until December 31, 2022.

Irish 'backstop'

The deal outlines a "backstop" arrangement to prevent the return of border checks between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the sides fail to agree a free trade pact following the transition period. Under the arrangement, Britain and the EU would form a single customs territory and Northern Ireland would also follow EU single market rules on the movement of goods to allow the border to remain free-flowing. Northern Irish businesses would be able to bring goods into the single market without restrictions. At any point after the transition period, the EU or Britain could decide that the arrangement was no longer necessary, but they must take the decision together. Some British MPs fear Britain could be stuck in the arrangement indefinitely, which would hamper its ambition to develop an independent trade policy.

'Citizens rights'

The draft deal preserves the rights of the more than three million EU citizens living in Britain and the one million British citizens living in the EU. EU and UK citizens, as well as their family members, can continue to live, work or study enjoying equal treatment to host nationals under the respective laws. It covers all such citizens who arrive before the transition period ends. They will maintain their right to healthcare, pensions and other social security benefits. EU citizens arriving in Britain after the end of the transition period – whenever that is – will be subject to more stringent immigration rules that are currently being debated in the British parliament.

Brexit bill

Covering Britain's outstanding financial obligations to the bloc, it calls for a fair settlement for UK taxpayers that the British government estimates to be up to £39 billion (44 billion euros, US$51 billion).

Gibraltar

With longstanding Spanish claims to Britain's neighbouring Mediterranean outcrop of Gibraltar, all sides sought to defuse any future tensions. The deal provides for Spanish-British cooperation on citizens' rights, tobacco and other products, environment, police and customs matters. It sets the basis for administrative cooperation for achieving full transparency in tax matters, fighting fraud, smuggling and money laundering.

British bases in Cyprus

The deal aims to ensure no disruption or loss of rights for the 11,000 Cypriot civilians living and working in the areas of the British sovereign military bases. It aims to ensure that EU law will continue to apply in the base areas, including on taxation, goods, agriculture, fisheries and veterinary and phytosanitary rules.

Other points

It oversees the UK's withdrawal from Euratom, the EU treaty on nuclear energy and protects intellectual property, including trademarks as well as more than 3,000 EU geographical indications. The latter cover regional brands such as Welsh lamb, Parma ham, Champagne, Bayerisches beer, Feta cheese, Tokaj wine, Jerez vinegar.

- AFP

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