The future of Britain’s exit from the European Union hung in the balance on Tuesday as lawmakers prepared to vote on a divorce deal after Prime Minister Theresa May won last-minute assurances from the EU.
Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to secure “legally binding” assurances from European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker.
“We have secured legal changes,” May said in a late-night news conference in Strasbourg beside Juncker.
The government’s top lawyer, Geoffrey Cox, weighed in early Tuesday, saying the revised divorce deal with the EU had not given Britain legal means of exiting the so-called backstop arrangement unilaterally if “intractable differences” arose.
“The legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have … no internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement,” said Cox, the attorney general.
Cox’s advice was thought to be crucial to winning over euroskeptic lawmakers in May’s Conservative Party, and she had hoped that revisions to a Brexit deal over the Irish backstop, or protocol, would offer enough assurances to get her deal through Parliament.
The Labour Party immediately seized on Cox’s opinion in a statement.
“The attorney general has confirmed that there have been no significant changes to the withdrawal agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night,” said Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister. “The government’s strategy is now in tatters.”
Now or never says EU’s Juncker
British lawmakers were told the joint instrument agreed on by May and Juncker “reduces the risk” the United Kingdom would be trapped in the backstop.
Brexiteers worry the backstop, aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland, could trap the United Kingdom in the EU’s orbit indefinitely.
Many of the same lawmakers have accused her of botching the negotiations with Brussels and surrendering on the detail of the backstop.
The United Kingdom is due to leave the EU on March 29.
After 2½ years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this is the last chance for Britain.
“It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.
British lawmakers on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against May’s deal, were studying the assurances with lawyers.
If lawmakers vote down May’s latest attempt, she has promised a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, there would be a vote on whether to ask for a limited delay to Brexit.
Britain’s crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.
Irish PM supports changes
Brexit would pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it would divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
May announced three documents — a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration — which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed on with the EU in November.
The immediate reaction was caution from Brexit-supporting lawmakers and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) that props up her minority government.
“We will be taking appropriate advice, scrutinizing the text line by line and forming our own judgment,” a DUP spokesperson said.
On Tuesday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar expressed support for the proposed changes, saying they do not undermine the backstop.
“It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement or undermine the backstop or its application. It says we will work together in good faith in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures the objectives of the protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met,” he said in a televised address on Tuesday.
Varadkar said a positive vote Tuesday could “restore confidence and optimism in Britain, Ireland and across the European Union.”
If the backstop comes into force and talks on the future relationship break down with no prospect of an agreement, May said the unilateral declaration she announced would make it clear there was nothing to stop London from moving to leave the backstop.
This story originally appeared on CBC