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May in plea for support on Brexit, as EU chiefs offer 'clarification' of deal

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for a news conference after an extraordinary EU leaders summit to finalise and formalise the Brexit agreement in Brussels, Belgium November 25, 2018. REUTERS/Dylan Martinez

By Andrew Woodcock, David Wilcock and Shaun Connolly, Press Association Political Staff

Theresa May has issued a last-ditch plea for MPs to back her Brexit deal, after Brussels chiefs issued a letter offering assurances that they do not want the controversial "backstop" to be permanent.

Speaking in a factory in Leave-voting Stoke-on-Trent, the Prime Minister said the letter from European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made clear that the backstop was "not a threat or a trap".

And she also said she was committed to working with MPs from across the House to ensure that workers' rights and environmental standards were protected after Brexit.

Mrs May warned that MPs would be behaving with the "height of recklessness" if they rejected her Withdrawal Agreement in Tuesday's historic vote, when no alternative deal was on offer which was negotiable and respected the 2016 referendum result.

The Prime Minister said that the presidents' letter provided "valuable new clarifications and assurances" to address the concerns of MPs who fear the backstop, which is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland, could become a permanent arrangement which the UK could leave only with approval from the EU.

She said the letter delivered:

- A commitment from the EU to begin work on a new post-Brexit relationship as soon as the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified;

- An explicit commitment that the new relationship does not have to "replicate" the backstop arrangement, under which the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU and be required to observe some of its rules;

- Agreement on a fast-track process to bring a new free trade agreement into force, even if some of the 27 remaining members delay ratification;

- Acceptance that the UK can unilaterally deliver on commitments made to Northern Ireland, including a "Stormont lock" on new EU laws being added to the backstop.

"The letters published today have legal force and must be used to interpret the meaning of the Withdrawal Agreement, including in any future arbitration," said the Prime Minister

"They make absolutely clear the backstop is not a threat or a trap.

"I fully understand that the new legal and political assurances which are contained in the letters from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker do not go as far as some MPs would like.

"But I am convinced that MPs now have the clearest assurances that this is the best deal possible and that it is worthy of their support."

In their letter, Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker stressed they were "not in a position" to rewrite or amend the Withdrawal Agreement secured by Mrs May last year.

But they assured the PM that the EU "does not wish to see the backstop enter into force", as it would represent a "sub-optimal trading arrangement for both sides".

The EU wants to ensure it would "only be in place for as long as strictly necessary".

The EU presidents stated: "Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement."

Warning that failure to deliver Brexit would do "catastrophic harm" to trust in the political process, Mrs May said: "There are some in Westminster who would wish to delay or even stop Brexit and who will use every device available to them to do so.

"I ask them to consider the consequences of their actions on the faith of the British people in our democracy ... People's faith in the democratic process and their politicians would suffer catastrophic harm.

"We all have a duty to implement the result of the referendum."

With expectations high at Westminster that the Prime Minister is heading for a crushing defeat in Tuesday's crucial vote, Mrs May issued a plea to MPs concerned about the danger of a no-deal Brexit to back her.

"The only ways to guarantee we do not leave without a deal are: to abandon Brexit, betraying the vote of the British people; or to leave with a deal, and the only deal on the table is the one MPs will vote on tomorrow night," she said.

"You can take no-deal off the table by voting for that deal. And if no-deal is as bad as you believe it is, it would be the height of recklessness to do anything else."