May and Juncker plan further talks on solving Brexit impasse
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker have promised to hold further talks in the coming weeks to find a “way through” the Brexit impasse, as the UK seeks concessions from Brussels over its divorce agreement with the bloc.
In a joint statement, the British prime minister and the European Commission president said they had held “robust but constructive” discussions in Brussels on Thursday and that they had agreed further talks at an official level to find a way through that could win the support of parliament.
“This is important progress,” said one British official.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, will meet Stephen Barclay, the UK’s Brexit secretary, in Strasbourg next week.
But Mr Juncker told Mrs May the 575-page draft withdrawal treaty was not open for renegotiation after the prime minister “raised various options” for seeking alternative arrangements over the so-called Irish backstop, a guarantee against a hard border on the island of Ireland that Brexiters fear will “trap” the UK indefinitely in a customs union with Brussels.
Mrs May said she was seeking “legally binding changes” to the withdrawal agreement to deal with MPs’ concerns about the backstop.
The prime minister wants to make some progress before the end of February, when ministers expect her to return to the House of Commons with a tweaked deal that would then be put to a second “meaningful vote” after the treaty was defeated by a 230 vote-margin last month.
Donald Tusk, European Council president complicated Mrs May’s attempts to placate Tory Brexiters when he said on Wednesday that there was “a special place in hell” for leading Eurosceptics who did not have a clear plan for Brexit. Mr Tusk’s outburst reflected his “genuine, deep frustration with the mess that we are in”, according to one EU official.
But David Lidington, the minister seen as Mrs May’s deputy, said Mr Tusk’s comment “wasn’t the most brilliant diplomacy in the world”.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think Mr Tusk was venting yesterday, but I don’t think that will detract from what I expect to be a courteous and sensible, grown-up discussion between the different EU leaders and the prime minister.”
Mrs May’s attempt to win support at Westminster for a tweaked deal has been bolstered in recent days by a more conciliatory tone from Labour and the Democratic Unionist party.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to Mrs May on Wednesday offering talks to find “a sensible agreement that can win the support of parliament and bring the country together”.
Although Mr Corbyn is demanding a permanent customs union — anathema to Tory Eurosceptics — as one of the conditions for Labour support, his more positive tone about a Brexit deal has infuriated pro-Europeans in his party.
Labour MP Chris Leslie tweeted: “Seriously? Offering to help Tory Govt enable Brexit? It’s not just Labour’s conference policy in the bin. When the jobs go & revenues for services dry up as a result — Labour’s leadership will have ZERO right to complain: they share responsibility.”
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which provides Mrs May with her majority in parliament, has indicated it is not demanding that Mrs May strip the backstop from the treaty altogether, but that it is willing to look at legally watertight guarantees to put a time limit on it.