May delays Brexit vote as UK political turmoil persists

British PM’s move does not alter anything for Ireland or European Union, says Varadkar

British prime minister Theresa May has admitted she will not get a new Brexit proposal in time for MPs to hold a "meaningful vote" this week, amid warnings time is running out for an agreement before Britain leaves the European Union.

Mrs May on Sunday delayed the vote until March 12th, 17 days before Britain is to leave the EU, as her ministers threatened to take control of the exit timetable.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said: "For the European Union, that doesn't change anything." Speaking at the EU-Arab League summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, he added: "It doesn't change anything from Ireland's point of view either."

The Taoiseach is due to meet Mrs May and other EU leaders at the margins of the summit.

Speaking on her way to Egypt, Mrs said she would continue the “positive talks” with the EU this week and, as a result, the vote would be delayed. “We still have it within our grasp to leave the EU with a deal on 29th March,” she said.

As a way to break the impasse remains unclear, reports last night suggested support in EU circles for a long extension of the Article 50 period, possibly delaying the UK’s departure until 2021.

However, senior Brussels sources dismissed these reports as inaccurate.The Guardian reported this lengthy extension was favoured over a short extension to allow for plans on the future relationship to be developed and make redundant the backstop, the insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Mr Varadkar said the EU can offer Britain “assurances” on the Brexit withdrawal deal but will not provide something which alters its fundamental shape. The Taoiseach said any reassurances on the deal cannot “contradict the legal reality” of what has already been agreed.

Mr Varadkar again ruled out a time limit or unilateral exit clause for the backstop, as has been pushed for by London.

“The whole point of the backstop is to give us an assurance that we won’t see the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, no matter what else happens as a consequence of Brexit.”

‘Not up for renegotiation’

When asked if an addendum to the withdrawal agreement could be drawn up to reassure the British government, the Taoiseach replied: “The withdrawal agreement, including the Irish protocol and backstop, are not up for renegotiation.

“We’re happy to discuss with the United Kingdom assurances that they may need to have further confidence that the backstop, if ever applied, will not be permanent. It will only apply unless and until something supersedes it.

“So we are happy to talk about mechanisms to give them that reassurance that some of them need. However, we can’t agree to something that would contradict the legal reality or the spirit behind what has already been agreed.”

The deadline Mrs May has set for the meaningful vote is an attempt to circumvent MPs’ attempts to extend Brexit talks.

A proposal by Labour’s Yvette Cooper, which parliament is due to debate on Wednesday, would give MPs the ability to seek an extension to the Article 50 exit process if no deal has been approved by parliament by March 13th.

British home secretary Amber Rudd, business secretary Greg Clark and justice secretary David Gauke indicated on Friday they would back the proposal, which would contradict Mrs May’s continued insistence not to extend article 50. Mrs May insisted on Sunday that “collective [cabinet] responsibility has not broken down”.

Responding to the vote delay, Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Mrs May was "putting the country at risk by recklessly running down the clock to force MPs to choose between her bad deal and a disastrous no deal".

The European Parliament’s Brexit chief, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted: “I have seen many surprising decisions in a lifetime in politics. But this is close to being one of the most reckless.”

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters at the summit: “If by the beginning of March there’s no support for the deal then I think it would be good to postpone Brexit because a no-deal scenario is bad for the EU but extremely bad for the UK.” – Additional reporting Financial Times