EU needs May to drop her red lines to save Brexit deal
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EU needs May to drop her red lines to save Brexit deal

EU officials insist there's no room to renegotiate

After Theresa May's proposed Brexit withdrawal deal was rejected by Parliament on Tuesday, Londoners are torn between hope for a new referendum and worry that the UK could withdraw from the European Union without a deal.

The British parliament's crushing rejection of the Brexit withdrawal deal will not force Europe to renegotiate its terms, but will almost certainly delay the divorce.

And if Brussels gives London a few months' grace it would be to allow Britain to change course and seek closer future ties than Prime Minister Theresa May has so far been ready to accept.

Some in London think May should try to win new concessions or assurances that would allow her to revive a deal that MPs rejected by 432 votes to 202.

Read: 'Humiliated': British press says May 'crushed' by defeat

But EU officials insist there's no room to renegotiate a withdrawal deal hammered out over 18 months of painstaking diplomacy, and experts warn against allowing May false hope.

Nevertheless, the withdrawal agreement came with a political declaration that laid out a road-map to future UK-EU ties, and this could be modified if May drops her red lines.

Britain could then seek a Norway-style association with the EU, remaining a member of a customs union or even the single market, in return for accepting some conditions of membership.

Peter Kellner, visiting scholar at Carnegie Brussels and former head of polling firm YouGov, told AFP that EU negotiators should adopt "tough love tactics" with Britain.

"The issue next week or the one after will be what happens when it becomes clear that Theresa May cannot get anything like what she wants through parliament," he said.

Read: Would a Norway option break the Brexit stalemate?

'Radical change'

"One of two things will happen: Either she will change her position radically or, if she doesn't, parliament will take control and parliament will impose a radical change.

"The danger of the EU trying to see if there's a way of trying to get Theresa May out of her hole is that we have another three or four months of discussions that don't get anywhere."

So far, EU leaders seem to be heeding such warnings. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, made it clear that he would like to see Britain rethinking leaving the bloc.

"If a deal is impossible, and no one wants 'no deal', then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?" the former Polish premier tweeted.

Without a withdrawal agreement, Britain leaves the European Union in under 1,750 hours, at midnight on March 29.

Everyone in Brussels assumes the deadline will now be extended, but not beyond the end of June, when a new European parliament will take its seats -- presumably without British MEPs.

If London leaves without a deal, most experts predict disastrous economic disruption and some fear the return of a hard border in Ireland that could undermine the peace process there.

Frustrated European leaders are cautious of intervening in May's domestic agony, but some say the best thing they can do is to stand firm and wait for May to come to them.

"They have to be blunt," said Andrew Duff, a former British MEP and a scholar with the European Policy Centre.

"They aren't going to agree to reopen the withdrawal agreement, but they are certainly prepared, indeed pleased, to open up the political declaration. The Brits have to ask them," he said.

"But if you open it up there's the opportunity to modify those red lines in a pro-integrationist direction," he told AFP.

If May can convince her own cabinet - perhaps after losing some more of her more eurosceptic ministers - she may be able to get parliament on board with a softer Brexit.

Hardline Brexiteers would see this as a betrayal, but May may have no choice but to seek opposition support if she wants an agreement.

Read: How Europe reacted to Brexit deal defeat

'Blackmail'

Nevertheless, the scale of May's task has left some wondering if Brexit could be reversed by a second vote.

"We start to sense that the game is getting very tight," Elvire Fabry, a scholar at the Delors Institute, told AFP.

"There is no majority for anything in the British parliament and the choices narrow down to a 'no deal' and of a second referendum, given that Europe has reached out its hand."

Others, however, fear another referendum would extend the uncertainty and never produce a clear result.

And it may be time for Europe to blink and agree to a time limit - albeit a lengthy one - on the "back stop" clause in the divorce deal, designed to keep the Irish border open.

"If you're faced with a choice between an immediate border, and a deal with a time limited backstop of say 15 years I'm not sure what you choose," said Guntram Wolff of the Bruegel think tank.

"Of course you don't want to give in to blackmail, but on the other hand, the defeat is so big, do you really want to have a border as of 30 March?"

Read: Post-Brexit vote: be wary of prospects of a new 'consensus' approach

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