Little sign of Brexit progress as May and Juncker clash
Theresa May has clashed with Jean-Claude Juncker during “robust” Brexit talks in Brussels but secured agreement for a fresh round of formal negotiations to break the impasse.
Demands from the prime minister for a renegotiation of the terms of the Irish backstop were firmly rejected by the European commission president despite May’s insistence that such a move would win over MPs to her withdrawal agreement.
In a significant step, however, a joint statement from Downing Street and the European commission announced new talks on the “speed” with which the two sides would seek to complete their post-Brexit talks on the future trade deal.
May’s critics have voiced fears that slow progress on those trade negotiations would leave Britain trapped in the Irish backstop, under which the UK would stay in a customs union to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The statement suggested that wording could be added to the political declaration to reassure MPs that the backstop would be only temporary.
The Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, is to meet the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in Strasbourg next Monday.
But the two sides also indicated in their statement that significant progress is not expected by next Wednesday, when the prime minister had suggested that she might put a revised deal to MPs.
Juncker and May are instead to meet again before the end of February, with a scheduled EU-Arab League summit on the 24th of that month now appearing to be a possible key moment in the Brexit talks.
According to the joint statement, May had described to Juncker “the context in the UK parliament, and the motivation behind last week’s vote in the House of Commons seeking a legally binding change to the terms of the backstop”.
May is seeking “alternative arrangements” to replace the Irish backstop, a time-limit on the customs union it envisages or a unilateral exit mechanism.
Juncker, in response, told the prime minister that the EU would not “reopen the withdrawal agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal”.
“President Juncker, however, expressed his openness to add wording to the political declaration agreed by the EU27 and the UK in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK,” the statement said. “President Juncker drew attention to the fact that any solution would have to be agreed by the European parliament and the EU27.”
The statement described the discussion “as robust but constructive”. The meeting came just 24 hours after Juncker’s counterpart in the European council, Donald Tusk, warned of a “special place in hell” for those who campaigned for Brexit without having a plan
“Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European council. The prime minister and the president will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.”
May is meeting Tusk and the president of the European parliament, Antonio Tajani, later on Thursday.