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Theresa May ordered to reopen Brexit negotiations with Europe

Posted at 1:57 PM, Jan 29, 2019
and last updated 2019-01-29 16:57:01-05

Britain is heading for a new showdown with the European Union after UK lawmakers ordered Theresa May to return to Brussels and reopen her hard-fought Brexit deal.

The House of Commons voted 317 to 301 to demand that the British Prime Minister seek new terms with the EU over the thorny issue of the Irish border, a totemic issue for Brexiteers that has dogged May for months.

But the EU said on Tuesday there was no chance of reopening the Withdrawal Agreement -- signed by May in November but comprehensively rejected by the House of Commons a month later.

In a series of votes on Tuesday, lawmakers also rejected a no-deal Brexit, with 318 to 310 approving an amendment to May's deal that seeks to take the option off the table. But that measure is not legally binding, and lawmakers failed to pass any amendment that would have prevented the UK crashing out of the EU without a deal on March 29.

After the vote, May said she would go back to the EU but admitted renegotiation with Brussels would be tough. "There is limited appetite for such a change in the EU and negotiating it will not be easy," May told Parliament. "But in contrast to a fortnight ago, this House has made clear what it needs to agree a deal."

The EU stood firm on Tuesday. A spokesman for Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, insisted that the Brexit deal "is not open for renegotiation."

"The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union," the spokesman told CNN.

Dublin also rejected any attempt to re-open the Brexit deal. "The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation," the Irish government said in a statement.

"The agreement is a carefully negotiated compromise, which balances the UK position on customs and the single market with avoiding a hard border and protecting the integrity of the EU customs union and single market," Ireland said.

What now for May?

Despite saying in December that her Brexit deal was locked down, May told MPs earlier Tuesday that she now wanted a mandate to reopen it. May argued that it would give her a chance to resolve the thorny issue of the Northern Ireland backstop -- an insurance policy to prevent the return of a border infrastructure in Ireland -- despised by many Brexiteers.

But, with just 59 days to go until Britain leaves the EU on March 29, it could be too little too late. EU officials have repeatedly insisted that the withdrawal deal cannot be reopened.

One EU diplomat told CNN earlier on Tuesday: "London has negotiated with itself more than the EU. The negotiation with the EU is over."

In fact, there are signs of frustration in Brussels . Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, told CNN that the Parliament would "not give its consent to a watered-down Withdrawal Agreement."

"The deal we have is fair and cannot be renegotiated. The backstop is needed because of UK red lines and the EU to secure the Good Friday Agreement," Verhofstadt added.

However, it's possible that May could secure changes to the political declaration that accompanies the deal.

How did the UK get here?

It's been a whirlwind few weeks for the Prime Minister, whose first deal was overwhelmingly rejected by MPs , in the biggest defeat for any UK government in the modern parliamentary era.

It was a devastating blow for May, after two and a half years of torturous debate and negotiations with the EU. It left her facing a deep political crisis with no clear way forward -- except edging closer to crashing out of the EU without a deal.

It turns out that untangling a 45-year marriage after 51.9% of British people voted to leave the EU in 2016 was not as easy as some Brexiteers claimed it would be.

May's biggest headache has been the hardline pro-Brexit lawmakers within her own Conservative party , who have dogged her deal from the start.

Unfortunately, Monday's votes don't clear much up. But one thing is for certain: the clock is ticking and unless May can get approval from both the EU and UK, or unless she seeks an extension on Article 50, the UK will undoubtedly crash out on March 29.