British PM doesn't expect quick breakthrough in EU Brexit talks

Anti-Brexit campaigners waving the Union Jack and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Wednesday. Pro-Europeans fear that the exit from the bloc will weaken the British economy and its international standing.
Anti-Brexit campaigners waving the Union Jack and European Union flags outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on Wednesday. Pro-Europeans fear that the exit from the bloc will weaken the British economy and its international standing.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BRUSSELS • Britain's weakened Prime Minister Theresa May has said that she did not expect to secure an immediate breakthrough in Brexit talks that would provide her fractured party with the kind of reassurances needed to get her deal through Parliament.

The European Union's response as she arrived in Brussels yesterday for two days of talks with fellow EU leaders at a summit was bound to disappoint Mrs May, fresh from surviving a mutiny against her leadership within the Conservative Party.

The other 27 national leaders were wary of giving Britain any legal assurances over the most contentious element of their tentative Brexit deal - the emergency fix for the Irish border - partly because they expected Mrs May would come back again to ask for more next month.

"I recognise the strength of concern in the House of Commons and that is what I will be putting to colleagues today," Mrs May said on arrival. "I don't expect an immediate breakthrough, but what I do hope is that we can start work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary."

Mrs May won the backing of 200 Conservative Party members of Parliament versus 117 against, in a secret ballot that deepened divisions just weeks before Parliament needs to approve a deal to prevent a disorderly exit from the EU.

In Britain's biggest decision for decades, Brexit has split the nation and will shape the future of its US$2.8 trillion (S$3.8 trillion) economy. Pro-Europeans fear the exit will weaken that economy and its international standing. Brexit supporters hail it as casting off a flailing German-led European project.

Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay said Mrs May, who has been shuttling round Europe for months and would be attending the EU summit until this afternoon, would seek assurances Britain would not be tied to EU rules indefinitely after Brexit.

But EU leaders look unlikely to offer immediate support.

A draft EU statement said they were merely "ready to examine" whether further assurance could be given. "There is no point bleeding for May now when it may really not be about what is in the Brexit deal. In the UK Parliament, it is about new elections and a leadership contest," an EU diplomat said.

"So, today is just about kicking the can down the road, buying time until January."

Mr Sebastian Kurz, Chancellor of Austria, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said yesterday EU leaders were prepared to approach Mrs May in her attempts to find a Brexit deal that would command support in the British Parliament.

Mr Kurz told Austria's Der Standard newspaper that no changes could be made to the exit deal agreed between Mrs May's government and the EU.

"Clarifications" could be made to the "vaguely formulated" political declaration between the two parties on their future relationship, Mr Kurz said.

"We are prepared to accommodate Theresa May," he noted.

The six-point EU draft document said any future assurances would not "change or contradict" the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck last month after two years of negotiations.

Earlier this week, Mrs May delayed a parliamentary vote on her deal, designed to maintain close future ties with the EU, after admitting it would be soundly defeated in the House of Commons. She has pledged a new vote before Jan 21, but faces a tall order to convince sceptical lawmakers.

With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, prospects now include a potentially disorderly exit with no deal agreed and no smooth transition, or even another referendum.

Mrs May, who met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels and EU summit chairman Donald Tusk, wants legal assurances that the Irish "backstop" will not remain in place indefinitely. The backstop is an emergency fix to prevent extensive border checks on the island of Ireland. It is the most contentious element of the deal.

The EU's draft statement, seen by Reuters, reiterated that it prefers a new deal to ever triggering the Irish backstop, and that it would try to swiftly conclude such an accord even if the emergency border fix kicks in.

EU states were not in agreement on the text yesterday morning, however. Diplomats in Brussels expect it to change after Mrs May tells the other national leaders what she needs to push their deal through her Parliament.

REUTERS

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 14, 2018, with the headline 'British PM doesn't expect quick breakthrough in EU Brexit talks'. Print Edition | Subscribe