On the eve of a crucial vote in Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May won concessions from the European Union during a last-ditch trip to France late Monday to try to save her Brexit deal.
As negotiations deadlocked and she faced the prospect of another humiliating defeat in Parliament, the prime minister flew to Strasbourg to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
The agreement includes “legally binding changes” to strengthen the plan for exiting the EU that had been contested by lawmakers, May said after the meeting.
The amendments capped a day in which many lawmakers and analysts had been predicting chaos.
Until Monday night, the EU and Britain had not resolved how to maintain an open border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which will leave the 28-member bloc along with the rest of the United Kingdom.
British lawmakers had balked at a so-called backstop agreement, a contingency plan in case Britain and the EU could not agree to a future trade agreement. It would have the whole of the U.K. remain in an EU customs union until a permanent solution were found; Northern Ireland would remain linked to some rules of the EU single market.
Some critics said such differences between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. could damage the union, a danger in a region once marred by years of bloody sectarian conflict. Others complained the backstop could tie Britain indefinitely to EU trade and customs regulations with no means of unilaterally withdrawing.
David Lidington, minister of the Cabinet Office, appeared before Parliament in London late Monday and told lawmakers that they would be presented with two new documents ensuring “the European Union cannot try to trap the U.K. in the backstop indefinitely.”
At a news conference with Juncker, May said the amendments deliver exactly what lawmakers had asked for.
“Today we have secured legal changes. Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people,” she said.
May said the deal enabled Britain to regain control of its laws, border and money while also guaranteeing a close future partnership with the EU.
Juncker warned that the concessions made late Monday were as far as the EU was willing to go.
“There will be no third chance,” he said. “It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.”
The opposition Labor Party’s Brexit spokesman Sir Keir Starmer said the prime minister had gotten herself into an “absurd situation” and argued that it appeared though nothing had fundamentally changed.
With 18 days to go until the March 29 deadline, when the decades-long partnership is due to officially end, questions remain about how Britain will proceed with its divorce from the European Union.
Opponents have argued that the prime minister is attempting to force the hand of lawmakers who think approving an imperfect deal is better than failing to agree on one altogether — a move that risks the country crashing out of the EU without any contingency plans.
May last put her Brexit deal to lawmakers in January, and it was defeated by 230 votes in the 650-seat Parliament — the largest defeat for a sitting government in British history.
It highlighted the depths of discord within Parliament over how to implement the results of the 2016 referendum that asked British voters whether they wanted to leave, or stay in, the European Union.
“Leave” voters won by 52% to 48%, and the issue has consumed the political agenda ever since. The bitter nature of the campaign left the country divided, and both the ruling Conservative Party and opposition Labor Party have become deeply fractured.
“Whatever happens now, you’ve got to think of the social impact that will be left behind,” said Matthew Flinders, a University of Sheffield politics professor. “You’re going to be left with an incredibly fractured society.”
Even though an EU withdrawal deal was agreed to by British and EU negotiators and signed off on by all 27 EU leaders in November following months of difficult negotiations, it was vehemently opposed by some British lawmakers who took exception to the backstop arrangement regarding the land border on the island of Ireland.
After January’s failed vote, May promised her colleagues she would go back to Brussels and return with a revised deal that they could vote on.
If May’s deal is rejected again Tuesday evening, lawmakers will be offered the chance to vote on leaving the EU on March 29 without any deal, a resoundingly unpopular option because of the damage it could cause to the already shaky economy.
If that vote also fails, they will then be asked to vote on extending the March 29 deadline to see whether a new compromise can be sought. But it is unclear how long any extension could last, and this could put Britain in the awkward situation of having to put forward candidates for the upcoming European Parliament elections at the end of May.
Many pro-EU lawmakers and campaigners believe a vote to extend the deadline would be their chance to overturn Brexit altogether.
The so-called People’s Vote campaign has been gaining pace and supporters in recent months and has planned another huge march through London on March 23. The last rally drew 700,000 people, according to organizers.
Labor Party leader Jeremy Corbyn recently said he would also support a second referendum if May’s deal fails to pass Parliament and the prime minister will not rule out no deal.
The mood among EU leaders and diplomats had been bleak Monday before the May-Juncker meeting. Some officials had begun discussing a post-May government.
It is a testament to her tenacity as an individual, but also symptomatic of the fact that no other politician wants to take up what is widely seen as a poisoned chalice.
Nevertheless, in recent days, some members of her own Conservative Party have started to openly question not if, but when, it will be time for May to move on.
Lawmaker George Freeman, who has openly raised questions about a new prime minister, said Monday that he is not calling for “a panicked change of leader” right now, but as soon as Brexit is done.
“I do think we need to choose a new leader for a new generation with a new vision of a Conservatism that can make sense of Brexit and reinspire and reunite the nation,” he said.
May herself has told her party members that she will not lead them into another election, scheduled for 2022.
Boyle is a special correspondent.