"The withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated," says European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, while EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier says time too short to find alternative arrangement to UK's divorce deal.

President of the European Union Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (L) speaks with European Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (R) during a session of the parliament at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, on January 30, 2019.
President of the European Union Commission Jean-Claude Juncker (L) speaks with European Chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier (R) during a session of the parliament at the EU headquarters, in Brussels, on January 30, 2019. (AFP)

Leaders across the European Union offered a united chorus of "No" on Wednesday to Britain's belated bid to negotiate changes to the Brexit divorce deal so Prime Minister Theresa May can win the backing of her parliament. 

In London, May acknowledged that her government hasn't decided exactly how it will try to change the deal to address British lawmakers' concerns about the Irish border.

All this while Britain is headed for the EU exit in less than two months, on March 29.

"We are, quite simply, running out of road," said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said time is too short to find an alternative arrangement to the Irish backstop and Britain's divorce deal.

"We ourselves talked of so-called alternative arrangements which could prevent the return of a hard border. Only, no one, on either side, was able to say what arrangement would be needed to ensure controls on goods, animals and merchandise, without having a border," Barnier told France's RTL radio.

"We have neither the time, nor the technologies."

'The best and only deal possible'

Buoyed by winning a vote in parliament, May has vowed to secure "legally binding changes" to the withdrawal agreement. 

British lawmakers voted on Tuesday to send May back to Brussels seeking to replace an Irish border provision in the deal with "alternative arrangements," ignoring EU warnings that the agreement cannot be altered.

"The withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated," said Jean-Claude Juncker, chief of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission.

Juncker told European parliamentarians in Brussels "the withdrawal agreement remains the best and only deal possible."

'Backstop' process

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said, "We've been down that track before and I don't believe that such alternative arrangements exist."

Much of the opposition centres on a border measure known as the "backstop," a safeguard mechanism that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the border between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

The border area was a flashpoint during decades of conflict in Northern Ireland that cost 3,700 lives. The free flow of people and goods across the near-invisible border underpins both the local economy and Northern Ireland's peace process.

Many pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU, and say they won't vote for May's deal unless it is removed.

German government spokesman Steffen Seibert said "opening up the withdrawal agreement is not on the agenda."

Britain and the EU struck a divorce deal in November after a year and a half of tense negotiations. But the agreement has run aground in Britain's Parliament, which overwhelmingly rejected it on January 15.

May was due to speak to Varadkar and European Council President Donald Tusk on Wednesday, and met opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in an attempt to find elusive cross-party unity on Brexit.

Against a no-deal, against a backstop

The EU says the backstop is an insurance policy and as such can't have a time limit or a get-out clause.

The EU parliament's point-man on Brexit, Guy Verhofstadt, underlined that nobody in Europe wanted to use the backstop, but that it's "needed to be 100 percent sure that there is no border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic."

Verhofstadt said the only way for May to win concessions would be to back away from her long-held stance that Britain would not remain part of the EU's customs union after Brexit.

"If the future relationship is, for example, a customs union, that makes it completely different," Verhofstadt told reporters.

The impasse has left Britain lurching toward its EU exit without a deal to ease the way. 

'Disorderly exit'

British lawmakers approved a motion on Tuesday ruling out a "no-deal" Brexit but without saying how they expect their preference to be achieved. The vote was not legally binding, but has political force as an expression of the will of parliament.

Juncker said the vote by Britain's Parliament "has further increased the risk of a disorderly exit of the UK"

"We know from yesterday's debate that the House of Commons is against many things," Juncker said. "It is against a no-deal Brexit, it is against a backstop.

"But we still don't know what exactly the House of Commons is for."

Source: AP