European leaders on Thursday (Dec 13) rebuffed Prime Minister Theresa May’s pleas to help her sell the Brexit agreement to a sceptical British Parliament, toughening their stance as they stepped up planning for a chaotic no-deal divorce.
Mrs May had come to Brussels hoping to secure some additional “assurances” on the most controversial part of her Brexit deal – the so-called Irish border backstop.
While she made clear she wasn’t expecting a breakthrough straightaway, she urged leaders to do everything they could to make the accord more acceptable at home.
But instead of giving her what she needs, leaders hardened their approach. They toughened the language of their communique, taking out some of the most helpful parts that diplomats had drafted in the run-up to the meeting.
“Theresa May has led a courageous fight but unfortunately we are not seeing the results,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters. He told Mrs May to come up with new ideas to fix the problem.
If Mrs May can’t persuade Parliament to back her plan, Britain will be on course to crash out of the club of 28 countries in just over three months’ time, unleashing political and economic chaos.
Alternatively, she risks Parliament pushing her to rip up her Brexit plan, or even into a second referendum.
On Monday, Mrs May was forced to cancel a planned parliamentary vote to ratify her Brexit deal because she knew she’d lose.
Two days later, she was fighting an attempt to oust her as prime minister from members of her own Conservative party dismayed at her handling of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union. She survived the vote, but most of Parliament still opposes her deal.
Three diplomats said Mrs May’s pitch to them was too vague and she failed to make leaders understand what exactly she thinks would work.
Unusually for Brexit summits, leaders themselves got involved in redrafting the communique, and were even more pessimistic than their officials had been, one of the diplomats said.
“Our UK friends need to say what they want instead of asking us to say what we want,” Mr Juncker said after the meeting. “We would like, within a few weeks, our UK friends to set out their expectations for us because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise. And I would like clarifications.”
Leaders cut a line in the statement that had offered to “examine whether any further assurance can be provided” on the backstop.
Still, they reiterated that they will work to avoid the backstop ever coming into effect, and to make sure that if it does, it will be only temporary. They also promised to work quickly on the future trade deal.
A person familiar with the UK position said leaders hadn’t ruled out further discussions.
The biggest political problem Mrs May faces with the so-called backstop guarantee for the Irish border is that it ties the UK into the EU’s customs regime indefinitely.
That’s unacceptable to pro-Brexit Tories who want Britain to be free from European rules to strike free trade deals around the world. The Northern Irish party that props up Mrs May’s minority government also rejects it, as it treats Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK.
Earlier, diplomats had been working on a proposal to offer Mrs May a declaration that would have legal force to ease concerns about the Irish backstop.
The idea was to call another summit in January to finalise the declaration. The plan didn’t fly, at least for now. But leaders might still get back together again next year – and probably before Jan 21, Mrs May’s deadline for putting her deal to Parliament at last.