UK's chief Brexit negotiator says: It's May's deal or extension - ITV

FILE PHOTO: Olly Robbins, senior civil servant and Europe adviser to Prime Minister Theresa May, arrives at the Cabinet Office, in London, Britain January 28, 2019. REUTERS/Peter Nicholls

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s lead Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins has saidlawmakers face a choice between Prime Minister Theresa May’s exit deal or a long extension of the March 29 deadline for leaving the EU, ITV news said, citing a private conversation.

ITV news reported that its correspondent had overheard Robbins, who is a career civil servant, not a politician, talking to colleagues at a hotel bar in Brussels on Monday.

Robbins said he expected UK lawmakers in March to be presented with the option of backing a reworked Brexit deal or a potentially significant delay to Brexit, the broadcaster said.

“The issue is whether Brussels is clear on the terms of extension,” Robbins was overheard saying. “In the end they will probably just give us an extension.”

May has repeatedly said that Britain will leave the EU on March 29.

ITV news said Robbins thought the fear of a long extension to Article 50 - the process of leaving the EU - might focus lawmakers’ minds.

On the question of the backstop - an insurance policy to prevent the return of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland - ITV news said Robbins had outlined a strategy to satisfy May’s Conservative lawmakers. He said the European Commission would need to agree that the word “necessary” in the Northern Ireland protocol is defined as “necessary subject to the future trade deal”.

ITV news said Robbins confirmed that the original plan was for the backstop to be designed not as a “safety net” for the island of Ireland but as “a bridge” to a long-term trading relationship between the EU and the UK.

“The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” Robbins was quoted as saying. “We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.”

Reporting by James Davey; editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Gareth Jones