UK's May presses EU for Brexit compromise as clock ticks

Fresh from a political setback at home, British Prime Minister Theresa May landed on Wednesday at European Union headquarters in Brussels for more talks on Brexit with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

May's prospects for a happier ending to her day were slim as Juncker already made it clear that he expected little to emerge from their second encounter this month.

In London, May lost three Tory legislators earlier in the day over her handling of the Brexit negotiations. They resigned to join a new centrist group. Still, it was Juncker who looked most beaten up, with a band aid on his left cheek, the result of a bad shaving experience.

"I don't want you to think Mrs May is responsible for this injury on my face," Juncker said before welcoming her in a stilted ceremony which did not include a kiss or a handshake.

May is seeking changes to Britain's withdrawal agreement after British lawmakers resoundingly rejected it in January, but the EU insists the 585-page document won't be reopened.

The stalemate has raised fears of Britain leaving without a divorce deal in place at the end of March, an outcome that could cause severe economic disruptions for both sides. It has also raised the possibility of London seeking to delay its departure to wrap up negotiations.

The difficulties finding a proper way out of the crisis over Brexit has created Britain's biggest parliamentary crisis in decades.

Brexit-driven political cracks in yawned wider on Wednesday as three pro-European lawmakers quit May's ruling Conservatives to join a new centrist group of independents who oppose May's determination to take Britain out of the EU with or without a divorce deal.

Anna Soubry, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston resigned to join eight ex-opposition Labour Party lawmakers in an alliance dubbed the Independent Group. The defections mark the biggest shake-up in decades for Britain's political parties.

Earlier on Wednesday, May's foreign secretary said securing an orderly Brexit still was "of paramount importance" and insisted that the UK can leave on March 29 as planned if a compromise deal is found.

"In the vital weeks ahead, standing back and hoping that Brexit solves itself will not be enough," Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on a trip to meet his German counterpart. "The biggest risk to Brexit now is defeatism about the possibility of finding that parliamentary agreement" to approve the divorce deal.

UK lawmakers object to a border provision between the UK's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

May wants to change the deal's phrasing to make sure that the mechanism to ensure an open Irish border after Brexit would only apply temporarily.

Hunt insisted that a "simple and important change" is needed for the Irish border and that "this is really the only way through the current situation".

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