20th Jan 2019

Battered May seeks Brexit 'assurances' from EU

  • British prime minister Theresa May with her Luxembourgish counterpart, Xavier Bettel arriving to the summit. EU leaders want to hear from May on Brexit (Photo: Council of the European Union)

British prime minister Theresa May, on the back of surviving a confidence vote back home, said on Thursday (13 December) she did not expect a quick "breakthrough" at the EU summit as she seeks assurances on the Brexit deal from EU leaders to help her get the deal through the British parliament.

"My focus now is on ensuring that I can get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line, because I genuinely believe it's in the best interest of both sides," May told reporters arriving at the two-day summit of EU leaders.

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

May on Wednesday night survived an attempt by her Conservative Party's hard-line Brexiteers to topple her. To bolster support from MPs, she promised not to lead the Tories into the next general election in 2022.

Her disastrous election campaign of 2017 saw her blow a double-digit poll lead, and lose the party's overall majority in parliament.

UK and EU negotiators agreed to a Brexit deal last month, which was sealed by EU leaders only a few weeks ago.

But May faces severe challenges in getting this Brexit deal approved in the House of Commons with only four months to go until the UK leaves the bloc on 29 March. May was already forced to delay the vote once earlier in the week. Now the vote is expected to be in January.

Brexiteers have pointed to the so-called backstop on the Irish border, that is aimed to secure that the future border between the EU (Republic of Ireland) and the UK (Northern Ireland) remains open to avoid the resurfacing of sectarian tensions there.

It would only be implemented if the UK and the EU would not be able to agree on a deal on the future relations, including trade, during the two-year transition period.

May said she is seeking legal and political assurances from the EU that the backstop will not be used, and would be temporary.

While the EU is ready to help May to avoid a no-deal scenario, leaders have also made it clear that there could be no changes to the withdrawal agreement itself.

"'Legally-binding' will be a bit difficult. But anyway we all want to help, and our goal is that the new relationship will be before the backstop. So I think that at the political level we can say it again, that's our primary goal. Let's see if we can find something from the legal side also, but that's still open," Finland's prime minister Juha Sipila said before the EU summit.

EU leaders were lining up to emphasise that the bloc is not interested in actually using the backstop, which keeps the UK tied to the EU's customs union beyond Brexit without the UK having a say in trade talks.

"I mean, nobody in the European Union wants it [backstop] to be triggered, but you need to have it as a last resort if by 2021 or 2022 you have not, by then, decided on the new relationship to make sure to maintain stability on Ireland," Dutch premier Mark Rutte said.

Rutte added that the Brexit deal itself was non-negotiable, and said the Brexit agreement is the way it is, because of the UK's negotiating red lines: no border in the Irish Sea, no customs union or single market membership, and no free movement.

"I don't see how we could change this withdrawal agreement again, we can, of course, talk about whether there could be any additional assurances," Germany's Angela Merkel said on her way in to the two-day summit.

The EU is preparing a conclusion of the 27 leaders that aims to support May, and say the EU is interested in swiftly achieving a future trade deal and wants to avoid having to trigger the backstop.

Draft version

A draft version says that the EU is "ready to examine" if further assurance can be given.

The exact wording depends also on what May tells her 27 colleagues she needs to get the deal through the UK parliament.

Statements adopted at European Councils, meetings of EU leaders, are not legally binding but lay out the basic political direction for the EU.

EU diplomats say EU leaders will not roll out any legally-binding declaration this time, because that takes time and would be possibly too early politically for May if she plans to call for a vote in the House of Commons only in January.

Ireland's prime minister Leo Varadkar and May held a bilateral meeting before the summit.

Varadkar later told journalists that May will see greater assurance that a future relationship treaty with the UK will be negotiated rapidly and that it will be agreed before the UK and the EU needs to decide on the extension of the transition period, or implement the backstop - in July 2020.

"Nobody wants us to have to evoke it [backstop], and if it is evoked, we want to make sure it is for the shortest possible period," Varadkar said.

Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaite has vented some of the European frustration with the UK infighting over Brexit, when she tweeted: "Brexit Christmas wish: finally decide what you really want and Santa will deliver."

EU rules out Brexit changes, but could help May

EU top officials and German chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU would not renegotiate the Brexit deal, but talks are underway to design a clarification that could help the British prime minister get her parliamentary majority.

EU rules out Brexit renegotiation, again

EU officials have warned they will not reopen the UK withdrawal text no matter what happens on Britain's political scene. The EU summit is expected to give a statement on backstop, but no legal assurances.


Key points of the Brexit deal (if it ever comes into effect)

The main points of the Brexit withdrawal deal between London and Brussels dissected. Although the EU is preparing to sign the agreement, the UK government has been rocked by resignations since its publication less than 24 hours ago.


EU's Article 50: the rules for Brexit

Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty contains the rules that a member state wishing to leave the EU must follow. But it has never been used and leaves many unanswered questions on Brexit.

EU-27 unimpressed by May, offer little on Brexit

British PM asked for a legally binding guarantee on the backstop and for it to end no matter what in 2021, but did not reveal a strategy on how to sell the Brexit deal to her parliament.

No more Brexit talks, despite May's pleas

EU leaders said they can do no more than reassure the UK they do not want to trap it over Ireland, but May might need more than that to get the Brexit deal through parliament.

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