Theresa May, U.K. prime minister, heads to speak to members of the media as she arrives for the European Union (EU) leaders’ summit in Brussels, Belgium. (Photographer: Jasper Juinen/Bloomberg)

Britain Targets Brexit Deal Within Days as May Heads to Brussels

(Bloomberg) --

Prime Minister Theresa May is heading back to Brussels in a last-ditch attempt to save her Brexit deal, as businesses express growing alarm at the U.K.’s looming divorce from the European Union.

The British government sees May’s meeting on Wednesday with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker as a crucial chance to get legally binding changes to the so-called Irish border backstop, which has proved the biggest obstacle to getting a deal.

But EU officials are playing down the prospects of an imminent breakthrough, saying the meeting is just a staging post in the resumption of talks.

“There isn’t enough movement for me to be able to expect this to be a discussion with a concrete outcome,” Juncker said at a news conference in Stuttgart, Germany. In a later panel discussion, he expressed his frustration at the state of talks. “I’m losing my time with this Brexit,” he said.

If talks this week go according to plan, May’s team hopes to put a revised Brexit deal to a binding vote in Parliament early next week -- and before Feb. 27, U.K. officials said. That’s the date when members of Parliament opposed to Britain leaving the bloc without an agreement would have the chance to take the process out of May’s hands.

May’s mission comes amid a growing chorus of dismay from business leaders worried about a no-deal Brexit, with just five weeks left until the U.K. is due to leave the EU on March 29. “The pantomime needs to end and we need clarity as quickly as possible,’’ Stephen Phipson, chief executive off the U.K.’s main manufacturing lobby group MakeUK, said. “We need to stop this messing around in Parliament.’’

Britain’s auto-making industry was dealt a severe blow on Tuesday when Honda Motor Co. confirmed plans to shut its factory in Swindon, 80 miles west of London, which employs about 3,500 workers.

One plan May has been exploring in Brussels in the hope of reaching a breakthrough is to use technology to replace contentious backstop policy for the Irish border. The so-called backstop effectively ties Britain into the EU’s customs regime indefinitely, in what pro-Brexit campaigners see as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum to leave the bloc.
Britain Targets Brexit Deal Within Days as May Heads to Brussels

Malthouse Shelved

But the government has now concluded that the plan for new technology, known as the “Malthouse Compromise,” is not a serious contender for resolving the current impasse. It could be revived as part of future negotiations over the long-term trade deal with the EU, according to government officials who asked not to be named.
The prime minister has spoken to 25 of the other 27 EU leaders in recent weeks as she seeks the concessions she needs to win a vote in Parliament. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay are also in Brussels on Wednesday for technical talks on the contentious backstop.
Their aim is to secure legally binding wording that reassures British lawmakers the U.K. won’t get stuck in the backstop arrangement -- and therefore tied to EU rules -- indefinitely. May is still trying to convince the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement in order to do that, her spokesman said.
Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the pro-Brexit Conservative caucus in Parliament known as the European Research Group, issued a timely reminder Tuesday of the bar they expect May to clear. “If it is not in the withdrawal agreement, it will not butter many parsnips,” he said.

Gloomier in Brussels

The problem for May, though, is that the EU has repeatedly said it will not reopen
, a position it reiterated on Tuesday. Instead, it could offer an annex to the existing text, which could be legally binding.
The EU hasn’t yet been presented with a possible compromise text by the U.K. and the mood on the European side is far gloomier than the one suggested by the British government, two officials said.
This week’s talks are to see “whether a way through can be found that could gain the broadest possible support in the U.K. Parliament,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters. One EU official said that meant coming up with new language which would enable Cox to change his
about the temporary nature of the backstop.
In other developments on Tuesday:
  • Business Secretary Greg Clark warned that a no-deal Brexit would be a “disaster” and a “hammer blow” to U.K. industry after Honda confirmed plans to close its Swindon plant
  • Clark also said trade deals with Japan and South Korea won’t be ready before Brexit
  • Environment Secretary Michael Gove pledged to protect British farmers and uphold food standards if the country leaves the EU without a deal
  • Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell said the Labour leadership need to listen to critics as an eighth member of Parliament quit the party. Joan Ryan announced late Tuesday night she was leaving because she believed Labour under leader Jeremy Corbyn has become “institutionally antisemitic.”

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