Theresa May 'doesn't want delay' as Germany urges MPs to back deal
Downing Street has shot down suggestions that it is seeking to delay Brexit as British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a major backbench rebellion over preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told a conference in Dublin Castle that the EU is in "full solidarity with Ireland" and still insists that a hard Border is "unacceptable". Both Mr Maas and Tánaiste Simon Coveney delivered speeches where they urged British politicians to ratify Mrs May's Brexit deal.
It came as Downing Street was forced to deny reports that British and European officials are discussing the possibility of extending Article 50 - the mechanism for leaving the EU - amid fears a deal won't get over the line in the next 11 weeks.
Mrs May's spokesperson said it remained the PM's position that the UK will leave the EU on March 29. It was also confirmed that the House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal will take place on Tuesday, January 15.
Mrs May yesterday suffered a major backbench rebellion as MPs signalled their opposition to a no-deal Brexit by defeating the Government in the Commons.
Twenty Conservatives supported an amendment tabled by Labour former minister Yvette Cooper to the Budget-enacting Finance Bill.
Her proposal is aimed at restricting the Government's freedom to use the Bill to make tax changes linked to a no-deal Brexit without the "explicit consent" of Parliament.
Instead, the powers in the Bill could only come into force if the Commons has approved a Brexit deal, if the Government seeks to extend Article 50 or the Commons has approved leaving the EU without a deal.
It was supported by 303 votes to 296, a majority of seven, despite three Labour MPs rebelling to oppose it.
In Dublin Mr Coveney said Ireland wouldn't stand in the way of Britain delaying its departure from the EU if it asked to do so but said it must be justified. He added that his understanding is that Mrs May was clear she wasn't looking for an Article 50 extension. Mr Coveney said the focus should be on the Brexit deal and what clarifications and reassurance the British government may need to get it passed.
Mr Maas said Germany's priority is ensuring a no-deal scenario doesn't happen, adding: "I don't really want to think about the possibility of extending Article 50 here and now."
Much of the Westminster opposition to the deal stems from the so-called backstop to avoid a hard Border in Ireland, as Brexit-supporting MPs fear it will tie the UK to EU rules indefinitely.
- Read more: Coveney says Ireland won't stand in way of Britain delaying EU departure if it's justified
Mrs May is this week seeking further assurances from the EU on the backstop issue.
Earlier, during his speech to the Global Ireland conference, Mr Maas said: "We urge our British friends to act responsibly and unite behind the agreement." He also said the EU is "strong when we stand united" and this includes "full solidarity with Ireland".
"We insisted, and still do, that a hard Border dividing the Irish island is unacceptable.
"Some people called us stubborn. But the truth is, avoiding a hard Border in Ireland is a fundamental concern. It is a matter of principle, a question of identity for the European Union," he said.
In his address Mr Coveney said he remains convinced that there is a majority in Westminster which will "do all it can to avert a disastrous, crash-out Brexit".
During talks before the conference he thanked Mr Maas for the solidarity shown to Ireland by Germany on Brexit.
In his speech, Mr Coveney said: "There will be no more important bilateral relationship for Ireland in the EU after Brexit than the one we enjoy with Germany."
He said Germany is Ireland's fourth-largest trading partner, third-largest tourism market and second-largest inward investor. Contacts between the Irish and German governments appear to have ramped up in recent days. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had a 40-minute phone call with Chancellor Angela Merkel last week and met her successor as Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in Bavaria.
Separately, Fianna Fáil last night expressed concern at the Government's alleged "lack of urgency" in activating Brexit contingency plans.
Business spokesman Billy Kelleher said replies to Dáil questions show the Government has yet to request changes to EU state aid rules to allow it to protect Irish enterprises for a no-deal Brexit. He said such approval should be sought immediately.