Theresa May brings Brexit tour back to Brussels

Last month, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with the EU.
Last month, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May had negotiated with the EU.PHOTO: AFP

BRUSSELS (AFP) - Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May heads back to meet European Union leaders in Brussels on Thursday (Feb 7) as she seeks a way to avoid a no-deal Brexit in 50 days' time.

Expectations for the visit were already modest when, on Wednesday, EU kingpins Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker torched Mrs May's prospects of winning changes to the withdrawal agreement.

The president of the European Commission, Mr Juncker, told reporters Mrs May already knows and accepts that the EU will not reopen talks on the deal.

And Mr Tusk, who represents EU member governments as head of the European Council, triggered outrage across the Channel by damning pro-Brexit politicians for - in his view - recklessly failing to plan.

"I've been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely," Mr Tusk said.

Mr Juncker, at a later news conference, did not use the same language, but cheerfully laughed off Mr Tusk's remark.

But he also repeated the same warning that the withdrawal agreement, and the backstop clause designed to keep the Irish border open if no future trade deal is agreed, will not be changed.

"She knows that the commission is not prepared to reopen the issue," Mr Juncker said, after talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who also insisted on the need for the backstop.

'DON'T GAMBLE WITH PEACE'

This apparently united front did not daunt No. 10, which insisted that the British Parliament's rejection of the deal meant that Mrs May must seek material changes to the accord or see it fail.

According to talking points provided by Downing Street ahead of the visit, Mrs May will admit that: "Securing such changes will not be easy."

But she will add: "Last week, Parliament made clear that for the first time it could support the withdrawal agreement, subject to changes to the backstop.

 
 
 

"The Government now wants urgently to work with the EU to secure such changes. The EU shares the UK's commitment to leave with a deal. We must show determination and do what it takes to now get the deal over the line."

The impasse in Brussels has led to heightened fears Britain could crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29, disrupting trade and supplies to manufacturing.

Mrs May has exasperated EU leaders by repeatedly coming to Brussels without detailed proposals to solve the Brexit deadlock, and Mr Tusk warned her he expected her to bring “a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse”.

Mr Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the main opposition Labour party, wrote to Mrs May on Thursday setting out his five conditions for backing her on Brexit – including the UK staying in the EU’s customs union.  

While his demands will not be palatable to many in Mrs May’s Conservative party – not least because of the deeply entrenched tribalism of British politics – it suggests there may be room for manoeuvre, if not yet a clear path to a cross-party deal.

After seeing Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker on Thursday, Mrs May will have dinner with Mr Varadkar in Dublin on Friday.

PAINSTAKING TALKS

Mr Varadkar, whose government has stressed the importance of maintaining an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit, said recent “instability in British politics” showed why a backstop was essential.

"While we expect the backstop will never be used, we agreed again today it is needed as a legal guarantee to ensure there is no return to a hard border," he said.

On Wednesday, Mrs May discussed the issue with Northern Irish leaders in the British province.

Last month, the House of Commons overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that Mrs May had negotiated with the EU after 18 months of painstaking diplomacy.

Mrs May is now looking into changes to satisfy her MPs, who fear the backstop would keep Britain indefinitely tied to EU rules with even closer alignment for Northern Ireland.

Mrs May's spokesman stressed that she wasn't coming to Brussels to ask for more time and remained determined to deliver a Brexit deal before the March 29 deadline.