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UK leader seeks Brexit deal changes, but EU stands firm

Published
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Theresa May says she plans to seek a change on the divorce deal between Europe and the U.K. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Theresa May on Tuesday won a few weeks to salvage a Brexit deal but headed toward a clash with the European Union by promising to overhaul the divorce agreement she spent a year and a half negotiating with the bloc.

Trying to break the U.K.'s Brexit deadlock, May got Parliament's backing for a bid to rework an Irish border guarantee in the withdrawal deal — a provision May and the EU both approved, and which the bloc insists cannot be changed.

"It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal," she said, promising to "obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement" from the EU.

The EU immediately ruled that out, insisting in a statement that the current deal with the U.K. remained the "best and only way" to achieve an orderly Brexit. French President Emmanuel Macron said the agreement "is the best accord possible. It is not re-negotiable." Guy Verhofstadt, the top Brexit official at the European Parliament, said there was "no majority to reopen or dilute" the deal.

It was the latest disorienting chapter in a Brexit process that has grown increasingly surreal since Parliament rejected May's divorce deal two weeks ago, leaving Britain lurching toward a cliff-edge no-deal" departure from the bloc on March 29.

A series of Commons votes Tuesday on next steps submitted by both pro-Brexit and pro-EU legislators ended up sending starkly mixed signals, as lawmakers backed a call to renegotiate the deal, and also approved a rival motion ruling out a no-deal exit.

May had urged lawmakers to "send an emphatic message" to the EU, but their response is likely to leave the bloc even more confused about British aims.

May believes her agreement can still win Parliament's backing if it is changed to alleviate concerns about the Irish border measure, known as the backstop. The backstop would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU in order to remove the need for checks along the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.

The border is crucial to the divorce deal because it will be the only land frontier between the U.K. and the EU after Brexit, and because the free flow of people and goods underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.

Opposition to the backstop by pro-Brexit lawmakers — who fear it will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU — helped sink May's deal on Jan. 15, when Parliament rejected it in a 432 to 202 vote.

On Tuesday, Parliament backed, by 317 votes to 301 votes, a call for the border measure to be replaced by unspecified "alternative arrangements."

Leading Brexiteers praised the result. Former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said Parliament had sent a "clear, unambiguous" message that the backstop had to be removed.

"I hope that our friends in Brussels will listen and that they will make that change," he said.

But Green Party legislator Caroline Lucas, who wants a new referendum on Britain's EU membership accused May of chasing "heated-up fantasies that have already been rejected by the EU."

May acknowledged that the EU had "limited appetite" for changing the Brexit deal. But she vowed to go to Brussels and seek "significant and legally binding change" to the backstop. May's office said that might include an end date to ensure it is temporary or an exit clause for Britain. Both those ideas have been repeatedly rejected by the EU.

"There can be no change to the backstop," said Ireland's European Affairs Minister, Helen McEntee. "It was negotiated over 18 months with the U.K. and by the U.K."

Lawmakers voted on seven Brexit proposals Tuesday, including the border change supported by May and several measures that sought to rule out a "no-deal" Brexit.

Much of the business world says a no-deal Brexit would cause economic chaos by eliminating existing EU trade agreements and imposing tariffs, customs checks and other barriers between the U.K. and the EU, its main export market.

Most members of Parliament oppose leaving without a deal, but they rejected several proposals that tried to wrest control of the Brexit process from the government and give it to Parliament so lawmakers could stop Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal. Some opposition Labour Party members sided with the government, worried about being seen as obstructing Brexit.

Lawmakers approved, by a narrow 318 votes to 310 votes, a motion ruling out a "no-deal" Brexit but not saying how that should be achieved. The vote is not legally binding, but has political force as an expression of the will of Parliament.

Tuesday's ambiguous votes won't mark the end of Britain's turmoil over Brexit: There could be a rerun in two weeks. May said if she has not struck a new Brexit deal by Feb. 13, Parliament would get to vote, again, on what should happen next.

Robert Hazell, professor of government and the constitution at University College London, said the EU was "pretty resolute in not being willing to reopen the negotiations unless the British government can come back with something more specific."

"Tonight's votes only kick the can down the road for another two weeks," he said.

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Associated Press writers Danica Kirka and Gregory Katz in London, Angela Charlton in Paris and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.

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Follow AP's full coverage of Brexit at: https://www.apnews.com/Brexit

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
British lawmaker Boris Johnson stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during a debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Mark Duffy/UK Parliament via AP)
A pro-remain supporter stands under the EU flag in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Pro-leave protesters hold placards near the Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting at in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Anti-brexit supporters wave the British and EU flags in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Pro and Anti Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May faces another bruising week in Parliament as lawmakers plan to challenge her minority Conservative government for control of Brexit policy.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Anti Brexit protesters on board a hired red London bus demonstrate as they drive past the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Pro-Brexit British lawmakers were mounting a campaign Monday to rescue May's rejected European Union divorce deal in a parliamentary showdown this week. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain's Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Larry, the 10 Downing Street cat arrives to a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Anti-brexit supporters carry the EU flags as the gather in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
A pro-remain supporter wears a hat featuring the EU colors during demonstrations in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain's opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
People shelter under umbrellas as they watch the vote in Parliament on their phones in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond arrives back in Downing street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. British lawmakers have voted Tuesday to try to renegotiate the Brexit divorce agreement with the European Union to remove a contentious Irish border measure. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Graphic explains the various Brexit options.;
Anti Brexit protesters on board a hired red London bus demonstrate as they drive past the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Pro-Brexit British lawmakers were mounting a campaign Monday to rescue May's rejected European Union divorce deal in a parliamentary showdown this week. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Anti Brexit protesters on board a hired red London bus demonstrate as they drive past the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. Pro-Brexit British lawmakers were mounting a campaign Monday to rescue May's rejected European Union divorce deal in a parliamentary showdown this week. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Anti-brexit supporters carry the EU flags as the gather in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Anti-brexit supporters carry the EU flags as the gather in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
People shelter under umbrellas as they watch the vote in Parliament on their phones in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
People shelter under umbrellas as they watch the vote in Parliament on their phones in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019. Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Pro and Anti Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May faces another bruising week in Parliament as lawmakers plan to challenge her minority Conservative government for control of Brexit policy.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Pro and Anti Brexit protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Monday, Jan. 28, 2019. British Prime Minister Theresa May faces another bruising week in Parliament as lawmakers plan to challenge her minority Conservative government for control of Brexit policy.(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Pro-leave protesters hold placards near the Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Pro-leave protesters hold placards near the Parliament in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
A pro-remain supporter stands under the EU flag in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
A pro-remain supporter stands under the EU flag in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Secretary of State for International Trade Liam Fox arrives to attend a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Britain's opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019. Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Anti-brexit supporters wave the British and EU flags in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Anti-brexit supporters wave the British and EU flags in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
Larry, the 10 Downing Street cat arrives to a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Larry, the 10 Downing Street cat arrives to a cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. With Britain's House of Commons bitterly divided on the way forward for Britain's departure from the European Union, lawmakers representing various factions are vying to have their say in the Brexit process after they overwhelmingly rejected the government's divorce agreement two weeks ago. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Theresa May says she plans to seek a change on the divorce deal between Europe and the U.K. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May reacts as she addresses the house of Commons Parliament during the debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019. Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Theresa May says she plans to seek a change on the divorce deal between Europe and the U.K. (Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament via AP)
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond arrives back in Downing street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. British lawmakers have voted Tuesday to try to renegotiate the Brexit divorce agreement with the European Union to remove a contentious Irish border measure. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond arrives back in Downing street in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. British lawmakers have voted Tuesday to try to renegotiate the Brexit divorce agreement with the European Union to remove a contentious Irish border measure. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting at in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Downing Street after a cabinet meeting at in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union.(AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)
British lawmaker Boris Johnson stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during a debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019.  Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Mark Duffy/UK Parliament via AP)
British lawmaker Boris Johnson stands to address the house of Commons Parliament during a debate on Britain's Brexit European Union Withdrawal Act, in London, Tuesday Jan. 29, 2019. Seeking to break the parliamentary deadlock on Britain's Brexit from Europe, Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek to change the divorce deal between the U.K. and Europe. (Mark Duffy/UK Parliament via AP)
Graphic explains the various Brexit options.;
Graphic explains the various Brexit options.;
A pro-remain supporter wears a hat featuring the EU colors during demonstrations in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
A pro-remain supporter wears a hat featuring the EU colors during demonstrations in London, Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2019. Britain's Parliament is set to vote on competing Brexit plans, with Prime Minister Theresa May desperately seeking a mandate from lawmakers to help secure concessions from the European Union. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)