EU official Juncker calls for extra push before Brexit vote

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BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) – A top European Union official said Friday that the bloc wants to help Britain’s prime minister avoid a no-deal departure from the EU, but insisted there can’t be any renegotiation of the Brexit divorce deal.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s struggles to get the deal through Parliament, he continues to hope she can secure backing for it in a vote on Tuesday.

“We are checking with Downing Street what the clarifications could amount to” to help May get the deal approved, he said.

But, Juncker added: “They should not be confused with a renegotiation.”

Britain and the EU reached a hard-won Brexit deal in November, but the agreement has run aground in the British Parliament. May postponed a vote on the agreement in December to avoid a resounding defeat, and there are few signs that the deal has picked up support since then.

May promised to seek further guarantees from Brussels on the most contentious issue, the status of the Ireland-Northern Ireland border.

The EU is adamant that the legally binding 585-page withdrawal agreement can’t be reopened, but EU officials are looking for diplomatic wording that could sway reluctant U.K. lawmakers.

The agreement is intended to guarantee Britain’s smooth departure from the bloc, with a long transition period to adapt to the new situation and negotiate a permanent trade agreement.

Without a deal, Britain faces an abrupt break from the EU on March 29, and there are fears it could involve chaotic scenes at borders, ports and airports. Businesses and people would face uncertain weeks and months as they try to find out what the uncharted future would bring.

“I don’t like the prospect of a no deal. It would be a catastrophe,” Juncker said on a visit to Romania, as the nation took over the EU’s rotating presidency.

Most British lawmakers also oppose the prospect of leaving the EU without a deal. But many also dislike May’s agreement, which has displeased both sides of Britain’s Brexit divide. Many lawmakers who back leaving the EU say it leaves the U.K. tethered to the bloc’s rules and unable to forge an independent trade policy, while pro-Europeans argue it is inferior to the frictionless economic relationship Britain currently enjoys as an EU member.

Defeat will leave Britain staring at an exit on March 29 without a deal, unless the country’s feuding politicians can agree on another plan. This week, lawmakers passed an amendment forcing the government to come back to Parliament with a new plan within three working days of the deal being rejected.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warned Friday that the country would face “Brexit paralysis” if lawmakers rejected the deal next week.

“And Brexit paralysis ultimately could lead to no Brexit,” he told the BBC.

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Jill Lawless reported from London.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker waits for the start of the weekly College of Commissioners meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
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