Bruised UK leader returns to Brussels for Brexit help
Theresa May will seek assurances that Britain will not be tied to the EU indefinitely after exit, says Brexit minister Stephen Barclay
London — Britain’s weakened Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Brussels on Thursday to lobby European leaders for help after she survived a parliamentary mutiny that highlighted the deadlock over Brexit.
May won the backing of 200 Conservative Party members of parliament versus 117 against, in a secret ballot that deepened divisions just weeks before parliament needs to approve a deal to prevent a disorderly exit from the EU.
In Britain’s biggest decision for decades, Brexit has split the nation and will shape the future of its $2.8-trillion economy including London’s status as a global financial hub.
Pro-Europeans fear exit will weaken the West, already struggling to assimilate Russian and Chinese power as well as Donald Trump’s unpredictable US presidency. Brexit supporters hail it as casting off a flailing German-led European project.
Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said May, who has been shuttling around Europe for months and will attend an EU summit until Friday afternoon, will seek assurances Britain will not be tied to the EU indefinitely post-Brexit, as her party critics fear.
The “direction of travel” is in Britain’s favour, he said.
“The prime minister, through the mandate she secured from the parliamentary party last night, now has the time to have those discussions with European colleagues,” he said, adding that the direction of travel is “positive”.
However, no vote on the Brexit package was included in a schedule of parliamentary business for the coming week before Christmas and European leaders look unlikely to offer immediate support. A draft EU statement read they are merely “ready to examine” whether further assurance can be given.
The six-point EU document read any assurances will not “change or contradict” the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck in November after two years of negotiations.
Earlier this week, May pulled a parliamentary vote on her deal, designed to maintain close future ties with the bloc, after admitting it would be heavily defeated in the House of Commons. She has pledged a new vote before January 21 but faces a tall order to convince sceptical legislators.
With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, prospects now include a potentially disorderly exit with no deal agreed, or even another referendum.
May, who met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels and will shortly see EU summit chair Donald Tusk, wants legal assurances that the Irish “backstop” would not remain in place indefinitely. The backstop is an emergency fix to prevent extensive border checks on the island of Ireland and is the most contentious element of the deal.
“A significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I’ve listened to what they said,” May said in Downing Street late on Wednesday. “We now have to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people.”
May, a 62-year-old former Bank of England employee and daughter of a Church of England vicar, voted to remain in the EU at a 2016 referendum, but has pledged to implement Brexit in line with the people’s will after that narrow vote to leave.
The EU’s draft statement reiterated that the bloc prefers a new deal to ever triggering the Irish backstop and that it will try to swiftly conclude such an accord even if the emergency border fix kicks in.
EU states were not in agreement on the text on Thursday morning however, and diplomats in Brussels expect it to change. They suggested the bloc may be readying more solid assurances for May in January.
Several EU diplomats said Britain was seeking to terminate the backstop after three years.
May, who said on Wednesday she would not be standing in the next election due for 2022, has to secure some improvement on her deal if she is to have any hope of parliamentary approval.
The confidence vote against her has highlighted historic divisions over Europe within the Conservative Party that contributed to the downfall of May’s three predecessors: David Cameron, John Major and Margaret Thatcher.
National newspapers said “lame duck” May has been given a “stay of execution” after she “scraped through”.
The Northern Irish party that props up her government — and strongly opposes her withdrawal deal — said the fundamental arithmetic in parliament is unchanged despite the confidence vote victory, and the backstop must go.
Eurosceptics who see the proposed deal as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum went further.
“The prime minister must realise that, under all constitutional norms, she ought to go and see the queen urgently and resign,” said Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of a hard Brexit faction, after the confidence vote result.
Dominic Raab, who resigned as her Brexit minister after the deal, said he cannot see how May can go on as leader.
Loyalists, however, said the party needs to get behind May and offer some certainty to businesses over future ties with the world’s biggest trading bloc.
“They never, ever stop,” Alistair Burt, a junior foreign office minister, said of Rees-Mogg’s group. “After the apocalypse, all that will be left will be ants and Tory MPs complaining about Europe and their leader.”