European Union leaders will discuss how much of a lifeline to throw to UK Prime Minister Theresa May over her imperiled Brexit deal Thursday, after she survived a bruising confidence motion triggered by members of her own party.
Leaving Westminster convulsed by the crisis over her leadership, May came to Brussels to plead with EU leaders at a summit to make the agreement more palatable to skeptical lawmakers in London.As she arrived, May said she was there to speak with EU leaders about what it will take to “get this deal over the line.”
EU officials have already been discussing what can be done to reassure UK parliamentarians, who remain deeply divided over the agreement reached last month between the EU and UK government. May was forced to pull a vote on the deal in the House of Commons earlier this week when it became clear she would suffer a heavy defeat.The Prime Minister is seeking legally enforceable guarantees surrounding the Irish backstop — the insurance policy designed to prevent the return of border infrastructure between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The backstop has emerged as the crucial sticking point for many in May’s Conservative Party, furious that Britain could only leave it with the approval of the EU.UK Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the EU leaders’ summit in Brussels on Thursday.Read MoreBut EU leaders have been united so far in saying that negotiations cannot be reopened on the withdrawal deal, making it unclear what concrete concessions May can hope to take back with her to London.May is now expected to speak at the end of the summit’s afternoon session and will be able to take questions from other leaders, Downing Street said. The 27 will then discuss Brexit over dinner, when May was previously expected to make her case.May told reporters in Brussels she would be seeking the political assurances needed “to assuage the concerns that Members of Parliament have on this issue — (the backstop).””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,” she added.The Prime Minister also acknowledged that both the UK and EU were planning for a no-deal Brexit. “But I think, as I’ve always said, that the best arrangement for everybody, both the UK and the EU, is for us to agree a deal and get this deal over the line,” she said.As part of her shuttle diplomacy, May met with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and European Council President Donald Tusk before the summit began.Theresa May is here for now. And so is her Brexit headacheWhile May won Wednesday’s confidence vote, by 200 votes to 117, the margin of victory was significantly narrower than her supporters expected and she arrived in Brussels with her authority further dented.An EU diplomat told CNN that the other 27 EU nations were looking to May to “convince” them she can get the withdrawal agreement through the UK Parliament.”We’ve seen what happened yesterday. Convince us that what you ask will make a difference. If she pulls that off then we can talk… in the end they are politicians and they will want to help her. We are ready to be convinced,” the diplomat said. The 27 are “expecting serious clarification of what she [Theresa May] plans to do,” the source said, but for now, May appears to be “playing for time” in the hopes that uncertainty will win over the lawmakers she needs to back her deal.The diplomat added that they are very concerned about an accidental hard Brexit, saying the “most likely scenario is stumbling into a no deal.”
Europeans hold firm
Arriving in Brussels, EU leaders suggested they could offer greater clarity around the deal — but there was little sign they would make changes substantial enough to win over May’s critics at home.Why is the Irish border backstop such a big issue?
One of the big fears in the Brexit debate is that Britain’s departure from the EU will mean the reintroduction of border posts on the frontier between Northern Ireland, which remains part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member.
Border infrastructure was often targeted by Irish nationalist paramilitaries during the “Troubles” — the 40-year sectarian conflict in which more than 3,500 people died.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal avoids the reintroduction of a so-called “hard” border, because of the built-in transition period that keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU.
The problems come if there’s no agreement on what to do after the transition period ends in 2020. Enter the Irish “backstop,” an insurance policy designed to avoid a hard border if no other solutions are found by that time.
This has infuriated hard-line Brexiteers, worried the UK will never “properly” leave the bloc. They want to be free of the customs union, in order to forge international trade deals that would require the UK to be free of EU regulations on issues like agriculture, fisheries, food standards and the environment.
The Democratic Unionist Party, whose 10 MPs prop up May’s minority government in London, also demands a clean break with the EU, and oppose any move to give Northern Ireland different status from mainland Britain.
The big sticking point is that the Brexit deal, as it stands, states that neither side can leave the backstop unilaterally. Brexiteers hate the idea that the EU would hold a power of veto over the UK.
But others, including the Irish government, argue that the backstop would be meaningless if Britain could tear it up at will.
“The thing now tonight is we have to seek clarifications, particularly on the backstop,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. “There is this whole thinking in the UK that this backstop is inevitable, that it will be triggered. I can assure you one thing, there is nobody in their right mind in the European Union who wants to trigger the backstop because this is bad news not only for the UK but also for the EU.”Rutte added that it would be “impossible to break open” the withdrawal agreement, saying: “This is the only deal possible on the table.”Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, whose country holds the rotating presidency of the European Union, echoed that message. “The deal we already have is a good one. I think there is also an understanding from Theresa May that there will be no new negotiation of the withdrawal agreement,” he said. “But, of course … I think there will be some readiness from our side to maybe find some better explanation about the future relationship … There is also some room to have a better interpretation of what we agreed on.”French President Emmanuel Macron also rejected any renegotiation of the deal. “There can be a political discussion, but not a legal one,” he said. “It is up to Theresa May to say what the political solution is to get a majority on this agreement.” In an interview earlier Thursday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said he was relieved May was staying in office “because at least this has averted total chaos.” But asked about the backstop, Maas said it was “already a concession, as it has been agreed. What the British now want is for it to be limited in time or for it to be unilaterally terminable by the British. That is a point which I find very difficult to imagine meeting with approval in the member states of the European Union.”Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, called for cross-party cooperation in the UK to resolve the crisis, saying that “while the Brexit deal is far from certain, one thing is clear: even in the Tory party, there is no majority for no deal or hard Brexit.”
The size of Wednesday’s rebellion underscored the daunting task faced by the Prime Minister if she is to secure approval in a divided House of Commons for her Brexit deal. Hardcore Brexiters’ opposition to the agreement has crystallized around the Northern Ireland backstop. Britain's Brexit chaos is here today, tomorrow and probably for all of 2019But Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay insisted in an interview with the BBC’s Radio 4 on Thursday that any alternative deal to the one negotiated by May would also require a backstop on Northern Ireland. “And there’s a very good reason why they require a backstop, because of our commitment to ensuring there is no hard border in Ireland, our commitment to the peace process, those are very sincere commitments that we need to honor,” he told the program.May acknowledged that Wednesday had been “a difficult day” and said she was “grateful” for the support she’d received. “But I’ve also heard loud and clear the concerns of those who didn’t feel able to support me,” she said in Brussels.
May also confirmed that she did not intend to lead her party indefinitely. “I said in my heart I would love to be able to lead the Conservative Party into the next general election, but I think it is right that the party feels it would prefer to go into that election with a new leader.”Conservative Brexiter Jacob Rees-Mogg, who led the rebellion against May, has urged her to resign, saying the country needs a new leader.