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EU agrees to work with May on Brexit demands 

BRUSSELS/LONDON, February 7

The European Union on Thursday promised to work with Theresa May on “whether a way through can be found” to avoid the disruption of a no-deal Brexit after the British PM demanded changes to the divorce deal to get it through Parliament.

May was in Brussels on Thursday to plead with EU leaders to change the Withdrawal Agreement she negotiated last year, after the British Parliament rejected it overwhelmingly in January.

A cool handshake for the cameras with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did little to conceal the tension, just 50 days before Britain could leave the European Union without measures in place to keep trade flowing freely.

Neither spoke, with one reporter shouting to the retreating leaders: “Is this hell, prime minister?” EU summit chair Donald Tusk said on Wednesday that Brexit promoters deserved “a special place in hell”, a blunt display of frustration in Brussels that drew condemnation from many in UK.

“President Juncker underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement,” the EU’s executive arm said after what it described as “robust but constructive” talks with May. 

But the two tasked their teams to work on “whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect” the EU’s stance. They agreed to meet again before the end of the month. Parliament, which rejected May’s agreement by the biggest majority in modern British history, voted to renegotiate the deal, replacing a provision that some fear could keep British-ruled Northern Ireland under EU rules indefinitely.

EU leaders have repeatedly said it would be impossible to replace the provision, known as the “backstop”, because it is required to ensure no hard border, once a focus for sectarian violence, between Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

Unless Parliament approves a deal, Britain is on course to leave the EU on March 29 with no transition arrangement in place, a scenario that many businesses say would be catastrophic for the economy. Other options could include delaying Brexit, holding a new referendum or cancelling it altogether.

The Bank of England said Britain faced its weakest economic growth in 10 years in 2019, blaming mounting Brexit uncertainty and the global slowdown. May will return to Parliament on February 14 for a debate on the Brexit negotiations when lawmakers could again try to wrest control of the process from her, but a vote on approving the Brexit deal is likely to come later in the month. 

Meanwhile, May vowed that she would reach a deal to ensure Britain leaves the European Union on schedule on March 29, after talks with EU leaders. 

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