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Live: ‘Brexit could be lost,’ May warns MPs ahead of critical parliamentary vote

PRU, AFP | Video grab from the UK Parliament's Parliamentary Recording Unit (PRU) footage of UK PM Theresa May addressing parliament March 12, 2019.

United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May warned lawmakers that Britain may end up not leaving the EU if they vote against the deal she has agreed with Brussels later on Tuesday.

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"If this deal is not passed then Brexit could be lost," May told parliament.

May, her voice hoarse after days of frantic Brexit diplomacy, spoke as the House of Commons began debating the deal before a “meaningful vote” later Tuesday.

If parliament rejects the deal, they will then be given the opportunity on Wednesday to vote on whether to leave without a deal and on Thursday on whether to seek a delay to Brexit.

But, May warned, "It would not change the debate or the questions that need to be settled - it would merely pass control to the European Union," she said.

"They would decide how long an extension to offer, meaning we may not get what we ask for, they could even impose conditions on an extension. That could mean moving to a Brexit that does not meet the expectations of those who voted to leave or even moving to a second referendum."

May told parliament that said she had secured "improvements" from the EU to the deal that lawmakers rejected in January.

But many pro-Brexit lawmakers still believe the agreement keeps the United Kingdom bound too closely to the EU and said they plan to vote against it, including Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) which is propping up the minority Conservative government.

Britain is due to leave the bloc in less than three weeks, on March 29.

May’s hopes dashed by attorney general

However, the Attorney General (the chief legal adviser to the government) Geoffrey Cox dealt a major blow to the prime minister's plans.

Cox said the changes May had negotiated "reduce the risk" Britain could be trapped inside EU regulations - but did not eliminate it. The two-page report published by the attorney general said the UK could still not extract itself from the terms of the divorce deal unilaterally, a key demand of pro-Brexit British politicians.In a written legal opinion piece, Cox said that if UK-EU negotiations became stalled through "intractable differences," Britain would have "no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol's arrangements, save by agreement."

This essentially means the UK would have no lawful means of exiting the backstop aimed at avoiding border controls between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland. The so-called "backstop" solution for the Irish border -- designed to avert sectarian violence from returning to Northern Ireland -- is opposed by more ardent Brexit supporters. The Irish border quesiton is an issue that Brussels will not budge on, stating that the removal of a physical border is key to the Good Friday peace deal.

John Whittingdale, a Brexit-supporting Conservative lawmaker, said the attorney general's advice was "pretty terminal" for May's plan.

The main opposition Labour Party also maintained its opposition to the May’s deal.

"The attorney general has confirmed that there have been no significant changes to the withdrawal agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night," Labour Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer said. "The government's strategy is now in tatters."

UK lawmakers face complicated choices

Last chance?

May produced three documents - a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration - which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed with the EU in November.

British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against May’s deal, are studying the assurances and Cox’s legal advice before the vote later on Tuesday.

If parliament rejects May’s deal, she has promised a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, then a vote on whether to ask the EU for a limited delay to Brexit.

The United Kingdom’s painful divorce with the EU is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.

Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with both the unpredictable US presidency of Donald Trump and the growing assertiveness from Russia and China.

Supporters of Brexit say while the UK leaving the EU bloc might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable the EU to pursue a policy of deeper integration which the UK was vetoing.

Brexit-supporting lawmakers in May’s party had accused her of botching the negotiations with Brussels.

The House remains firmly divided, with the majority of lawmaker against Brexit altogether.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and REUTERS)

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