May meets EU leaders in bid to save her Brexit deal
British prime minister seeks reassurances on customs-union effects of Irish backstop clause
Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May began a tour of European capitals on Tuesday in a desperate bid to salvage her Brexit deal, a day after putting off a parliamentary vote to avoid a crushing defeat.
May had breakfast with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte in The Hague before going to lunch in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then travelling to Brussels.
She is seeking reassurances on provisions in the EU withdrawal agreement concerning Northern Ireland in the hope that these will persuade her Conservative Party opponents to support it.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said before meeting May that he was surprised at being asked for more talks.
“I’m surprised because we had reached an agreement on November 25” at the last EU summit, he said in the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
“The deal we have achieved is the best deal possible, it’s the only deal possible. There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation, but of course there is room, if used intelligently, to give further clarification and further interpretations.”
MPs in the House of Commons were due to vote on the deal on Tuesday night, but May postponed that on Monday, saying she expected to lose by a significant margin.
Her spokesperson said the vote would be rescheduled before January 21, just months before Britain leaves the EU on March 29.
EU President Donald Tusk, who was also to meet May in Brussels, has called a meeting of the other 27 EU leaders on Thursday to discuss the latest Brexit developments.
They and May were already due to attend a European Council summit on Thursday and Friday, which the British leader is expected to use to keep pushing her case.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said his government ruled out changes in the wording of the withdrawal agreement, but there could be “a political declaration coming from a European Council”.
“The Irish government doesn't have an issue with providing reassurance if that's helpful,” he told Irish public broadcaster RTE.
May faces strong opposition from Conservative MPs and parliamentary allies over the backstop clause in the Brexit deal to keep open the border with Ireland.
The backstop could keep Britain in the EU customs union for years after it leaves the bloc, far from the clean break eurosceptics want.
“I have heard those concerns and I will now do everything I possibly can to secure further assurances,” May told MPs on Monday. But it is far from clear what she can achieve.
One UK ministers, Martin Callanan, said in Brussels on Tuesday that Britain was seeking “additional legal reassurances that UK cannot be permanently trapped in the Irish backstop”.
House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said this could take the form of an addendum.
May said on Monday that nothing should be off the table, but warned that reopening the withdrawal agreement lead other countries to seek removal of aspects they did not like, for example on fishing rights.
Anand Menon, European politics professor at King's College London, said May needed Brussels to make it absolutely clear that it would offer no new concessions on the deal.
“I imagine they’ll add some language saying that both sides remain convinced that we’ll never need to use the backstop,” said Memon.
Even if no deal is secured, Britain is still on course to leave the EU on March 29. The British government has warned that a hard Brexit will be hugely damaging to the economy.
The pound plunged after the decision to postpone the parliamentary vote.
Tusk said Thursday’s EU meeting would cover no-deal plans, while the UK cabinet was due to discuss the issue on Wednesday.
France’s European affairs minister, Nathalie Loiseau, said the possibility of no deal was not unlikely, but “I'm very worried”.
May’s postponement outraged MPs, who demanded the right to vote on the Brexit deal.
Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is being pressed to table a motion of no confidence in May, but is holding off for now as his party believes May is likely to win. “The government has lost control of events and is in complete disarray,” he warned on Monday.
Conservative Party Eurosceptic MPs repeated calls for her to be replaced, with one warning it was time to “govern or quit”.