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UK PM secures changes to Brexit deal ahead of crucial parliamentary votes

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May secured from the European Union "legally binding" changes to her Brexit deal on the eve of a series of crucial parliamentary votes on Britain's departure from the bloc.

After a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, May said both sides have agreed on a "joint instrument with comparable legal weight" to the withdrawal agreement prohibiting the EU from applying the Irish backstop indefinitely, which remains the main concern among British lawmakers who rejected May's deal in January.

But if the EU still applies an indefinite backstop, the U.K. can challenge the arrangement through arbitration and suspend it, May said.

The U.K. and EU also agreed on a joint statement that commits both sides to begin work immediately to replace the backstop, which is designed to prevent the return of a hard border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and Ireland, with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.

May also said the U.K. will make a unilateral declaration allowing it to "dis-apply" the backstop, if ever put into use, in case talks on future EU-U.K. ties collapse.

May added that she will elaborate on the legal changes to her Brexit pact when she opens parliamentary debates March 12, when the House of Commons is due to hold another vote on the revised divorce deal.

"Now is the time to come together, to back this improved Brexit deal, and to deliver on the instruction of the British people," May said in a statement in Strasbourg.

If Parliament rejects May's deal, it will then proceed to decide whether the U.K. should crash out of the EU without a deal. If that vote fails, lawmakers could vote on whether the March 29 Brexit deadline should be extended.

In a statement, Juncker said the U.K. should complete Brexit before the European Parliament elections from May 23 to May 26, or be legally obligated to hold them.