May denies EU rebuffed her plea for reassurances

British Prime Minister Theresa May arriving at a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels yesterday. European diplomats said Mrs May had been unable to explain what she wanted or how she could deliver a British parliamentary majority to endorse the
British Prime Minister Theresa May arriving at a European Union leaders' summit in Brussels yesterday. European diplomats said Mrs May had been unable to explain what she wanted or how she could deliver a British parliamentary majority to endorse the Brexit deal.PHOTO: REUTERS

British PM holds out hope for more talks in the coming days even as bloc steps up preparations for a no-deal scenario

BRUSSELS • British Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday it was still possible to get further clarification from the European Union on the Brexit deal to help her win parliamentary approval for it, denying reports that bloc leaders refused her plea for reassurances on her deal.

"My discussions with colleagues today have shown that future clarification and discussion... is in fact possible," Mrs May told reporters after a two-day EU summit in Brussels.

"We will be holding talks in the coming days," she added.

Mrs May had sought to persuade her 27 colleagues that she could overcome huge opposition to the divorce deal among British MPs if they gave her some assurances over the thorny problem of the Irish border.

But they were not convinced, and European diplomats said Mrs May had been unable to explain what she wanted or how she could deliver a British parliamentary majority to endorse the deal.

"The signals we heard yesterday were not particularly reassuring on Britain's capacity to honour the commitments that were made," said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel earlier.

"So, we will make sure to prepare for all scenarios and prepare also for a no-deal scenario."

 
 
 
 

Mrs May postponed a vote in the House of Commons this week on the Brexit deal to avoid a crushing defeat, but has promised it will take place next month, by Jan 21 at the latest. This is uncomfortably close to Britain's scheduled exit day on March 29, and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was stepping up preparations in case Britain leaves with no deal in place.

Mrs May's apparent failed attempt to win assurances from the EU on her Brexit deal was cast by opponents yesterday as a humiliating failure that did nothing to ease the parliamentary deadlock over Britain's departure from the bloc.

"We cannot go on like this. The Prime Minister should reinstate the vote on her deal next week and let Parliament take back control," said the opposition Labour Party's Brexit spokesman, Mr Keir Starmer.

Mrs May came to Brussels wounded by a no-confidence vote on Wednesday night which she won, but in which 117 MPs - more than one-third of her Conservative Party - voted to oust her.

Opposition to the Brexit deal in Britain is focused on a so-called "backstop" arrangement designed to keep open the border with Ireland if and until a new United Kingdom-EU trade deal is signed.

The backstop is an insurance clause obliging Britain to follow EU trade regulations until a better way is found to avoid a "hard border" between Britain's Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.

Mrs May is seeking legal and political assurances that this will not keep Britain trapped indefinitely in an EU Customs union. But hardline anti-Europeans in her party and the Northern Irish party which props up her government want the backstop out of the agreement entirely.

Several EU leaders have talked of offering "clarifications" and "explanations", and a statement issued after they talked without Mrs May late on Thursday emphasised that they will try to ensure the backstop is never triggered.

But while an early draft of the conclusions said the EU "stands ready to examine whether any further assurances can be provided" on the backstop, this was removed from the final version.

One person briefed on Thursday's exchanges in Brussels said Mrs May was grilled by leaders.

"Everybody asked, 'What exactly do you want?'," he said. "She had no solid answers."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 15, 2018, with the headline 'May denies EU rebuffed her plea for reassurances'. Print Edition | Subscribe