LONDON – UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement with the European Union on the terms of Brexit was rejected by Parliament on Tuesday for the second time in two months.
Members of the House of Commons voted 391-242 against the proposed Withdrawal Agreement, despite the addition of guarantees that the provision to prevent the return of a hard border between EU member Ireland and the UK province of Northern Ireland would not trap the United Kingdom in a permanent customs union with the bloc.
The margin of defeat for May in the first vote on Jan. 15 was 230, a rebuke of historic proportions.
With May’s plan dead, the House is set to vote Wednesday on exiting the EU on the legally mandated date of March 29 without an agreement.
That motion in favor of a “no-deal Brexit” is expected to fail, triggering another vote on Thursday on whether London should ask the EU for an extension to allow for further negotiations.
May traveled to Strasbourg, France, late Monday in pursuit of some movement from the EU on what is known as the Irish backstop.
At a midnight press conference, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker announced what the Conservative prime minister’s government called a “legally binding instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol on Northern Ireland.”
Yet the UK attorney general said that the last-minute “clarifications” reduced – but did not eliminate – the risk that the country could be indefinitely bound to the Irish backstop.
Geoffrey Cox, whose job it is to present the House of Commons with independent legal advice, told lawmakers ahead of Tuesday’s vote that he still had concerns about the backstop.
Even with the latest assurances from the EU, the UK would be without any “internationally lawful means of exiting the protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement,” he said.
The Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing outfit from Northern Ireland that props up the Conservative minority government, dismissed the latest EU text as insufficient.
And hard-line Brexiteers inside the Conservative Party, led by the European Research Group, were likewise unpersuaded by the changes presented in Strasbourg.
EU leaders have been adamant on the need to avoid a hard border in Ireland, something that many people fear would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.
Juncker was emphatic on Monday that the EU was done talking.
“There will be no third chance. There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the re-assurances if the meaningful vote tomorrow fails,” he said.
The EU’s chief negotiator with the UK on Brexit, Michel Barnier, reinforced that point after Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons.
“The EU has done everything it can to help get the Withdrawal Agreement over the line. The impasse can only be solved in the #UK. Our ‘no-deal’ preparations are now more important than ever before,” the French politician wrote on Twitter.
Nearly 52 percent of UK voters voted “leave” in the June 2016 referendum on Brexit.