Second Brexit vote could damage UK ‘social cohesion’, May says
British prime minister says she is not seeking to change aspects of the Belfast Agreement
Theresa May has ruled out seeking changes to the Belfast Agreement as an alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop, affirming her government’s commitment to upholding every part of it. In a statement to the House of Commons about Brexit on Monday, the prime minister dismissed a report that she saw amending the agreement as part of the solution to the impasse over the backstop.
“All of us agree that as we leave the European Union, we must fully respect the Belfast Agreement and not allow the creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – nor indeed a border down the Irish Sea. And I want to be absolutely clear, in the light of media stories this morning, this government will not reopen the Belfast Agreement. I have never even considered doing so – and neither would I,” she said.
The prime minister’s official spokesman also dismissed a report that she was seeking a bilateral agreement between Dublin and London as an alternative to the backstop. In identifying the backstop as the focus of her efforts to find a majority in parliament for a Brexit deal, Mrs May rejected calls to rule out leaving the European Union without a deal.
“We need to be honest with the British people about what that means. The right way to rule out no deal is for this House to approve a deal with the European Union. That is what this government is seeking to achieve. The only other guaranteed way to avoid a no deal Brexit is to revoke article 50 – which would mean staying in the EU,” she said.
Mrs May said that extending the article 50 negotiating deadline would not rule out a no-deal Brexit but would simply defer it. She also rejected a second referendum, warning that it could damage social cohesion and undermine trust in the democratic process.
“I fear a second referendum would set a difficult precedent that could have significant implications for how we handle referendums in this country – not least, strengthening the hand of those campaigning to break up our United Kingdom. It would require an extension of article 50. We would very likely have to return a new set of MEPs to the European Parliament in May. And I also believe that there has not yet been enough recognition of the way that a second referendum could damage social cohesion by undermining faith in our democracy,” she said.
She announced she was scrapping a £65 fee for EU nationals wanting to remain in the UK after Brexit, promised to guarantee workers’ rights and environmental safeguards and said she would continue talks to find “the broadest possible consensus” on the way forward.
The prime minister said she would continue to meet MPs from all parties ahead of a vote next week when MPs will be able to table amendments backing alternatives to her deal. But Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who has refused to meet Mrs May until she rules out leaving the EU without a deal, said the meetings were phoney.
“The prime minister’s invitations to talks have been exposed as a PR sham. Every opposition party politician came out of those meetings with the same response. Contrary to what the prime minister has just said, there was no flexibility; there were no negotiations; nothing had changed,” he said. – Additional reporting: PA