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UK government says it has secured 'legally binding changes' to Brexit deal

Tonight’s May visit comes ahead of another expected Brexit vote tomorrow in the House of Commons.

Updated Mar 11th 2019, 9:30 PM

[Note: Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker have given a press conference on progress at the Strasbourg talks. The two leaders have agreed a joint instrument providing guarantees on the backstop - more details here.] 

BRITISH CABINET OFFICE Minister David Lidington has told MPs in the House of Commons tonight that the UK government has “secured legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration”.

He said proposed new mechanisms would prevent the EU from trapping the UK in the backstop indefinitely.

He said the deal would be put to MPs in a vote tomorrow as planned. 

May earlier arrived in Strasbourg for last-ditch talks with senior EU officials ahead of tomorrow’s planned vote. 

She arrived after 8pm this evening for her meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. 

Here at home, ministers convened this evening for their second Cabinet meeting of the day, while Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has spoken by phone with Juncker.

It’s understood that the Taoiseach and his entourage were due to fly to Washington DC this evening ahead of his week-long St Patrick’s Day visit to the States, however, his travels have been delayed until tomorrow. 

Varadkar had wanted to travel a day early to America so as to avoid being mid-flight when the Westminster votes were taking place tomorrow. 

However, senior sources confirmed that Cabinet members were summoned to a meeting for 6.45pm this evening. “Very sudden,” is how one source described it.

A government spokesperson has said the Taoiseach’s travel plans have always been “flexible” due to the unpredictability of Brexit events this week. It is “very much” the plan that Varadkar’s agreed schedule, which is due to begin on Wednesday, will go ahead. 

Some ministers were not present in person this evening as they have already left the country to fulfill their St Patrick’s Day itineraries. 

The meeting broke up just after 8.30pm and is due to reconvene later tonight. 

Earlier today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said May would be travelling to Strasbourg, “to try and finalise an agreement if possible”. 

France EU Brexit European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Source: Jean-Francois Badias

May was greeted this evening at the Strasbourg parliament building by Juncker and his chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Her visit comes after British officials worked through the weekend to secure concessions from the European Union they hope will persuade MPs to back the text.

Britain’s House of Commons overwhelmingly defeated the agreed EU-UK withdrawal deal in January and without significant changes, it is expected to do so again in a vote tomorrow. 

The EU has rejected many of May’s demands, which relate to the controversial backstop, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it had made an offer at the weekend.

Guy Verhofstadt, who oversees the negotiations for the European Parliament, said he and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani would meet later with May.

“I hope progress can be made, if it is possible, as a no deal #Brexit would be a catastrophe,” Verhofstadt tweeted.

“We will stand by Ireland & the need to safeguard the Good Friday Agreement.”

Another defeat in parliament could see the UK sever ties with its closest trading partner on 29 March with no new arrangements.

It would also raise the possibility of postponing Brexit, after May promised to allow MPs a vote later this week on whether to accept a no-deal scenario or request a short delay from the EU.

May has promised Britain will leave the EU whatever happens on 29 March, but many MPs fear that a “no deal” exit would wreak economic havoc.

In the face of a cabinet revolt, she promised that if her deal is defeated again then MPs will vote on “no deal” on Wednesday and then on Thursday, on delaying Brexit.

Any postponement would have to be approved by the leaders of the other 27 nations, who are next meeting at a Brussels summit on March 21-22 – a week before Brexit.

- With reporting by Christina Finn and AFP 

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