In­creas­ingly un­likely UK will leave on Brexit day, says min­is­ter

●Not enough time for leg­is­la­tion be­fore 29 March - even if MPS sit on Satur­days

The Scotsman - - Front Page - By PARIS GOURTSOYAN­NIS West­min­ster Cor­re­spon­dent

The UK is in­creas­ingly un­likely to leave the EU on 29 March, a se­nior Cab­i­net source has ad­mit­ted, de­spite Theresa May’s in­sis­tence that Brexit will go ahead on sched­ule.

The se­nior min­is­ter told

The Scots­man that without a break­through in rene­go­ti­at­ing the Ir­ish bor­der back­stop in­sur­ance pol­icy in the next two weeks, there would not be enough time to pass vi­tal leg­is­la­tion to de­liver Brexit.

The com­ments are at odds with Down­ing Street’s in­sis­tence that a re­quest to ex­tend Ar­ti­cle 50 is un­likely to be granted by the EU and would not de­liver on the re­sult of the Brexit ref­er­en­dum.

And se­nior EU of­fi­cials yes­ter­day is­sued their strong­est re­jec­tion yet of the Prime Min­is­ter’s calls for the with­drawal agree­ment be­tween Brus­sels and Lon­don to be re­opened so that legally bind­ing changes can be made to the back­stop in­sur­ance pol­icy.

Mrs May will travel to North­ern Ire­land to­day fol­low­ing a meet­ing of Cab­i­net to reaf­firm the UK’S “ab­so­lute com­mit­ment” to pre­vent­ing a hard bor­der be­tween the North and the Repub­lic, while hold­ing meet­ings with lo­cal busi­nesses and po­lit­i­cal lead­ers. But de­spite the Prime Min­is­ter rul­ing out any de­lay to Brexit, the Cab­i­net source said the UK’S de­par­ture as sched­uled on 29 March was be­com­ing “less likely”.

Mrs May has set her­self a dead­line of Valen­tine’s Day to ei­ther hold a vote on a rene­go­ti­ated of­fer from the EU or al­low MPS an­other chance to “take con­trol” of the Brexit process and force their own al­ter­na­tives through par­lia­ment.

The source de­scribed the vote on or be­fore 14 Fe­bru­ary as “piv­otal” and warned avoid­ing an­other heavy de­feat for the gov­ern­ment re­lied on Mrs May’s mis­sion to Brus­sels be­ing suc­cess­ful.

Cru­cial leg­is­la­tion on post-brexit man­age­ment of ar­eas such as agri­cul­ture and fish­eries, as well as an

im­ple­men­ta­tion bill that would be needed to en­act a deal with Brus­sels if MPS give their ap­proval, would have just six weeks from that point to be passed by par­lia­ment.

The min­is­ter said that without a deal, an ex­ten­sion to Ar­ti­cle 50 was in­creas­ingly likely, po­ten­tially de­lay­ing Brexit un­til the sum­mer.

“Leav­ing on 29 March is less likely be­cause of the lack of time we now have, even if MPS sat on Satur­days,” the Cab­i­net source said.

In a blow to Mrs May’s hopes of sav­ing her Brexit deal, a se­nior Brus­sels of­fi­cial said no­body in the EU was con­sid­er­ing of­fer­ing legally bind­ing as­sur­ances on the back­stop.

Speak­ing af­ter talks with MPS on the House of Com­mons Brexit com­mit­tee, Euro­pean Com­mis­sion sec­re­tary gen­eral Martin Sel­mayr said the 90-minute meet­ing had con­firmed the EU was right to start prepa­ra­tions for a nodeal out­come.

The com­ments from com­mis­sion pres­i­dent Jeanclaude Juncker’s right-hand man heap fur­ther pres­sure on the Prime Min­is­ter as she pre­pares to go to Brus­sels to seek a rene­go­ti­a­tion of the UK’S with­drawal agree­ment.

And­in­re­spon­se­tore­portshe had told the Brexit com­mit­tee the EU would be ready to con­sider legally bind­ing as­sur­ances, Mr Sel­mayr tweeted: “On the EU side, no­body is con­sid­er­ing this. Asked whether any as­sur­ance would help to get the with­drawal agree­ment through the Com­mons, the an­swers of MPS were … in­con­clu­sive.

“The meet­ing con­firmed that

the EU did well to start its no-deal prepa­ra­tions in De­cem­ber 2017.”

The Euro­pean Union’s chief ne­go­tia­tor Michel Barnier said the back­stop was the “only op­er­a­tional so­lu­tion” to pre­vent a hard bor­der on the is­land of Ire­land. Mr Barnier held talks with Dutch prime min­is­ter Mark Rutte. He said there was “full agree­ment that [the] with­drawal agree­ment can­not be re­opened”.

Mr Barnier said the EU was “ready to work on al­ter­na­tive so­lu­tions dur­ing tran­si­tion”, re­stat­ing Brus­sels’ po­si­tion the back­stop had to re­main in place un­less and un­til a re­place­ment could be agreed.

Mr Rutte said: “The With­drawal Agree­ment re­mains the only way to en­sure an or­derly with­drawal of the UK from the Euro­pean Union.”

Ger­man chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel said the EU was ready to lis­ten to pro­pos­als to solve the bor­der “rid­dle”, but needed to hear from Bri­tain how it thought it could be done.

She said: “To solve this rid­dle, you have to be cre­ative and you have to lis­ten to one an­other.”

0 Theresa May is re­turn­ing to Brus­sels for talks

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