Theresa May has claimed that her Brexit deal is not dead despite a bruising summit in Brussels in which EU leaders made no significant concessions to help her pass the agreement.
Speaking after the meeting the prime minister accepted that her “MPs will require further assurances” to pass the controversial plan after the EU ripped up a commitment to help. EU leaders on Thursday only released a bare-bones statement of “reassurances”, and deleted pledges from earlier drafts which had said the bloc “stands ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided”. But the prime minister insisted that “as formal conclusions, these commitments have legal status and therefore should be welcomed”.
She told reporters that after a round of diplomacy yesterday morning it was clear to her that “further clarification and discussion following the [European] Council’s conclusions is in fact possible”. The prime minister insisted there would be further discussions in the coming days, but speaking after Ms May, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, said he had “no mandate to organise any further negotiations”.
Ahead of the meeting some EU officials had suggested a more substantial package to help the prime minister might be held back until the new year – but it is not clear whether this plan is still on the cards. But even such a step appears unlikely to assuage Tory Eurosceptics, who want a legally binding mechanism for the UK to leave the treaty’s Northern Ireland backstop. The bloc has ruled this out, said it would effectively render the backstop ineffective, and that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement.
That backstop policy ties the UK to the EU’s customs area and ramps up checks on goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in order to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland. “As I have always said, the guaranteed way of avoiding the backstop is to have the future partnership in place by the time the implementation period is over. The EU is very firmly committed to this course,” Ms May said. “There is work still to do and we will be holding talks in coming days about how to obtain the further assurances that the UK parliament needs in order to be able to approve the deal.”
Mr Tusk and his European Commission counterpart Jean-Claude Juncker sought to downplay accusations that the prime minister had been treated poorly by the EU. “We have treated Prime Minister May with the greatest respect, all of us, and we really appreciate the effort by the prime minister to ratify our common agreement,” Mr Tusk said. “My impression is that in fact we have treated Prime Minister May with a much greater empathy and respect than some British MPs, for sure.”
Mr Juncker dismissed silent footage of an argument between him and Ms May yesterday morning. The prime minister appeared to confront him after taking offence over his use of the term “nebulous” to describe the debate in the UK. But he said the two leaders had worked it out, and that “in the course of the morning after having checked what I said yesterday night she was kissing me”.
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who is chairing the European Council, added: “Not all rumours in the media really go in line with how the meeting was. The problem is just that we had two different positions.”
Accounts of Thursday night’s meeting suggest the prime minister’s speech, in which she called for help to get the agreement “over the line”, was repeatedly interrupted by Angela Merkel asking her what she actually wanted from EU leaders. Senior UK government officials admitted that the prime minister did not bring any documented proposals with her to the meeting.
The approach puzzled EU diplomats, who for days before the conference had said they needed to see what proposals Ms May had come up with before they could respond to her request for aid. Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, said at a midnight press conference after the discussion on Thursday: “I do find it uncomfortable that there’s an impression perhaps in the UK that it is for the EU to propose solutions. It is for the UK leaving the EU and I would have thought that it was rather more for the British government.”
In the margins of the summit the meeting was being called “Salzburg 2.0” – a reference to a previous summit in September where the prime minister’s dinner speech also ended up accidentally hardening the EU position. The statement issued by leaders warns that the withdrawal agreement “is not open for renegotiation”, but clarifies that the controversial backstop will “apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement” and that the EU will “use its best endeavours” to get it replaced quickly “so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary”.
They assured the UK it was the EU’s “firm determination to work speedily” to replace it with a trade agreement. The statement will be of little help to the prime minister, who is struggling to get her deal through parliament after a bruising confidence vote on Wednesday where more than 100 of her own MPs said she should quit.
In one positive for the prime minister, Mr Juncker said he wanted talks on the future relationship to begin as soon as the House of Commons had approved the agreement. But the token gesture alone is unlikely to persuade Brexiteers.