May to meet Juncker on Thursday to seek Brexit concessions
Theresa May is to return to Brussels on Thursday seeking fresh concessions despite the EU’s insistence that the bloc will not renegotiate the Brexit deal.
The European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, will host the prime minister just 24 hours after a meeting with the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in the Belgian capital.
May is expected to formally seek the reopening of the withdrawal agreement on the back of the passing of the so-called Brady amendment last week calling for “alternative arrangements” to replace the contentious Irish backstop.
The prime minister told her cabinet ministers on Tuesday the objective was to find a legally binding way to ensure the UK could not be trapped indefinitely in the backstop, though alternative arrangements, a time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism.
“Following the vote, work has been taking place on all of the options and it is important for that to take place before we go to Brussels,” her spokesman said.
He added: “While Labour did not whip for the Brady amendment, Jeremy Corbyn said he also had concerns about the backstop so this issue that needs to be resolved not just for our colleagues and for the DUP but for MPs across the house.”
May’s chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, was in Brussels overnight, ahead of the prime minister’s visit, meeting “a combination of European politicians and officials”, according to No 10.
Downing Street would not be drawn on whether May would present just one or a number of possible options when she meets Juncker.
“The point we are at at the moment is that work is ongoing urgently on all three proposals. The PM has set out very clearly in the house what she believes will be required,” the spokesman said.
Number 10 added that the prime minister was “determined to do what it takes to get the changes required to support the UK leaving the EU with a deal”.
In Belfast on Wednesday, May will meet representatives from the UUP, Alliance, SDLP, DUP and Sinn Féin, and the leader of the Northern Ireland Conservatives.
May will not return in time for prime minister’s questions, which will instead be taken by her de facto deputy, David Lidington.
It is understood that May will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, following her 11am meeting with the commission president.
During a meeting with a group of MPs on Monday, Juncker’s trusted aide Martin Selmayr said a formal request for a renegotiation had yet to be tabled by Downing Street.
Selmayr, the commission’s secretary-general, ruled out the reopening of the withdrawal agreement. But he asked the cross-party delegation from the select committee for exiting the EU if they would support the deal if an additional legal assurance on the temporary nature of the backstop was made.
The Brexiters in the visiting group were unable to offer a clear response, leading to Selmayr to later tweet that he was reassured that the EU had been right to start its no-deal preparations in 2017.
Selmayr also denied MPs’ claims that his comments amounted to an offer of a legal adjunct to the withdrawal agreement.
On Tuesday, the commission’s chief spokesman said a press officer had been in the room taking notes as “this was a meeting that would be likely to be misrepresented”.
He said: “I can tell you that I am very well informed that what you have read in the sec general’s tweet is exactly what happened.”
Brexiters want the Irish backstop, which foresees the UK staying in a customs union to avoid a hard Irish border should there be no alternative, to be removed from the withdrawal agreement, or amended to be limited in time.
The EU’s leaders insist that the backstop is necessary to avoid any possibility of a hard border and a breakdown in the peace process.
Asked if the EU expected new proposals from May, the commission spokesman declined to speculate. “For us, as you know, the backstop which is part of the withdrawal agreement, is the central piece, is of fundamental importance.”