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Theresa May heads back to Brussels in bid to break Brexit deadlock | Politics News

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Theresa May is heading back to Brussels in another desperate bid to break the Brexit deadlock on the contentious issue of the Irish backstop.

She will meet the European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in the hope of winning legally-binding changes to the EU withdrawal agreement.

Her aim is to get the go-ahead from Mr Juncker to put proposals for a breakthrough to EU leaders at a summit in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on Sunday.

The prime minister’s latest bid to salvage a Brexit deal comes amid growing speculation at Westminster that three pro-Remain Tories – Sarah Wollaston, Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen – may be poised to join the new group of independent MPs.

Dr Wollaston fuelled the speculation by retweeting praise for the Labour MP Joan Ryan, who has become the eighth Labour MP to quit Jeremy Cobyn’s party and join The Independent Group.

There is growing speculation that Anna Soubry, second left, and Sarah Wollaston, right, could be about to join the independent group of MPs
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There is growing speculation that Anna Soubry, second left, and Sarah Wollaston, right, could be about to join the independent group of MPs

The prime minister had initially not intended to attend the gathering in Egypt, an EU-Arab League summit, because many of Europe’s most senior leaders were not planning to go either.

But now big players like Germany’s Angela Merkel are attending and so Mrs May sees Sharm el-Sheikh as a potential opportunity to reach a new deal with the other 27 EU leaders.

But the omens are not good.

Speaking ahead of his Brussels meeting with the prime minister, Mr Juncker said: “I am meeting Mrs May tomorrow evening, and there is not enough movement for me to be able to assume that it will be a productive discussion.”

On the eve of her Brussels visit, Mrs May met Tory MPs including the leaders of the European Research Group (ERG), Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker, in an attempt to win their support in a Commons vote next week on an alternative to the backstop.

In a blow to the prime minister’s hopes of a breakthrough, however, the EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier appeared to reject the so-called Malthouse Compromise when he met the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels on Monday evening.

The Malthouse Compromise would replace the backstop element of the Theresa May’s Brexit deal with a free trade agreement with as-yet-unknown technology to avoid customs checks on the Irish border.

It would also involve extend the transition period for an extra year until December 2021.

But after their meeting with Mrs May, Mr Rees-Mogg and Mr Baker insisted: “The Malthouse Compromise is alive and kicking.

“We look forward to further developments. We look forward to further precision about exactly what we will be asked to vote for.”

Jacob Rees-Mogg
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Theresa May is trying to win support from Jacob Rees-Mogg on an alternative to the Irish backstop

But just a few hours after the ERG’s meeting with the PM, the pro-Remain Chancellor Philip Hammond said it was clear the EU would not replace the Brexit backstop with the arrangements set out in the Malthouse Compromise.

Speaking at a business dinner, he suggested its proposals for technological solutions to the Irish border issue would remain on the table, however, as the UK negotiates a future partnership with the EU following Brexit.

Mr Hammond said: “However promising as an alternative arrangement to avoid entering a backstop in the future, it is clear that the EU will not consider replacing the backstop with such an alternative arrangement now in order to address our immediate challenge.

“The details of this initiative are still evolving and would require significant changes to EU legislation and customs practices that would need to be negotiated with the EU member states and others who will be affected by them.”

Mr Hammond said the Malthouse Compromise – drawn up by MPs from the Leave and Remain wings of the Conservative Party – was a “valuable effort” at finding a way to keep the Irish border open without a backstop.

He added: “It should be a major ongoing strand of our work, continuing at pace during the implementation period – one in which I hope and expect the EU will take an active part.”

Philip Hammond will share Treasury analysis covering a 'range of scenarios'
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Philip Hammond has said the EU will not replace the Brexit backstop with the arrangements set out in the Malthouse Compromise.

Mr Barclay, who will travel to Brussels for talks with Mr Barnier later this week accompanied by the attorney general Geoffrey Cox, told Sky News: “We’re committed to securing a solution.

“It is in the country’s interests to secure a deal, to move forward with the certainty that the business community, in particular, are asking for.”

While the prime minister is in Brussels, the Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is in Berlin, trying to win support from leading figures in the German government for a Brexit deal.

He will say in a speech: “None of us should have any doubt that failing to secure a ratified withdrawal agreement between Britain and the EU would be deeply damaging, economically and politically.

Jeremy Hunt
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Jeremy Hunt will say ‘we do not want historians in the future to puzzle over our actions’

“In the vital weeks ahead, standing back and hoping that Brexit solves itself will not be enough.

“The stakes are just too high: we must all do what we can to ensure such a deal is reached.

“At this momentous time, a heavy responsibility falls upon all of us.

“We do not want historians in the future to puzzle over our actions and ask themselves how it was that Europe failed to achieve an amicable change in its relationship with Britain – a country that is not simply a partner but a friend and ally in every possible sense.”

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