BRUSSELS: Bloodied but not yet beaten, British Prime Minister Theresa May met EU leaders on Thursday to beg for concessions that might save her Brexit deal but admitted she does not expect a rapid breakthrough.
May survived a confidence vote staged by her own party’s MPs late on Wednesday, but admitted as she arrived at the EU summit that she will not fight the next general election planned for 2022.
Instead, her focus is on salvaging her plan for an orderly Brexit and on persuading her European counterparts to offer guarantees that Britain will not remain trapped indefinitely in their customs union.
The other 27 EU leaders have agreed to draft a reassuring political statement, but remain firmly opposed to renegotiating a hard-won withdrawal deal they endorsed less than three weeks ago.
“My focus now is to get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line because I genuinely believe it’s in the best interests of both sides, of the UK and the EU,” May said.
“I don’t expect an immediate breakthrough but what I do hope is that we can start to work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary,” she said.
European diplomats are discussing a two-step plan that would see a brief political statement issued at the summit, followed in January by a legal interpretation of the deal.
“It’s all about clarification tonight,” said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
May was due to meet EU President Donald Tusk in Brussels for what he called “last-minute talks” before joining the other European leaders.
EU members have drawn up a draft six-paragraph statement they hope will appease British concerns about the so-called “Irish backstop” and give life to May’s effort to get the deal through parliament.
Last month the withdrawal accord was hailed as the end to a 17-month negotiation, and leaders dared hope they had saved Britain from crashing out of the union on March 29 without a deal.
But when May took it home, she ran into renewed opposition from hardline Brexiteers in her Conservative party and this week she baulked at putting it to a vote in parliament.
Now, with the vote delayed until January, she wants Europe to sweeten the offer with “reassurances” that measures to prevent the return of a hard border with Ireland will not last indefinitely.
According to European diplomats, the proposed summit statement would declare that any backstop “would only be in place for a short period and only as long as strictly necessary”.
And it will add: “The union stands ready to examine whether any further assurances can be provided. Such assurances will not change or contradict the withdrawal agreement.”
This would not be the legally binding promise, sought by Brexiteers, that the backstop would not be used to bind the UK into a customs union indefinitely.
“This is incredibly innocent language. Nothing of this is new. There is no end date for the backstop,” one European source told the Media.
Brexit will once again dominate an EU summit which had been planned to deal with the thorny issues of migration, budgets and eurozone.
After May made a desperate three-capital European tour on Tuesday to seek assistance from fellow leaders, Tusk had said he would love to help her, but “the question is how”.
European officials insist in public and in private that the backstop must stay. “The idea of a sell-by date won’t stand,” one said.
May also met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar before the summit. “Nobody is talking about and nobody is being asked to – by the British prime minister – to change the wording of the withdrawal agreement,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said in Dublin.
“What is being looked at now seriously is how a political declaration can be put together that is real, that provides reassurance for many in Westminster who need it, that the backstop represents no threat to them, no threat to the United Kingdom.”
Anything May does come away with must convince her own party, its angry Northern Irish allies and a majority of British MPs to back the deal when it returns to for a vote before January 21.
Her victory in a confidence vote of Conservative MPs late Wednesday made her immune from further challenge in her party for a year, but she was forced to admit she would quit by 2022.
And if the Brexit agreement is still found wanting not only would Britain and its main trading partners face economic chaos, but May could be finished off by a parliamentary vote of no confidence.