May appeals to EU leaders to save her Brexit deal

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Theresa May has appealed to EU leaders to give her the assurances she needs to get the backing of MPs for her Brexit deal.

At the EU summit in Brussels, she insisted she could construct a Commons majority for the controversial Withdrawal Agreement, despite heavy criticism from all sides of the House.

However, in a meeting with the leaders of the remaining  27, she said she had to be able to convince MPs the UK would not find itself tied to the EU indefinitely through the Northern Ireland “backstop”.

“There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal so with the right assurances this deal can be passed,” she said in prepared remarks released by No 10.

“Indeed it is the only deal capable of getting through my Parliament.”

After listening to her appeal, European Council president Donald Tusk said EU leaders had reaffirmed their determination that there could be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

He said that they had expressed a “firm determination” to work “speedily” to ensure that there was an agreement on the future relationship in place by the end of the transition period at the of 2020 so the backstop was not needed.

He said that if the backstop was ever activated it would apply temporarily “unless and until it is superseded by an agreement” that ensures a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is avoided.

His comments stopped short of offering any sort of legally binding commitment or brake clause that is likely to persuade MPs critical of the deal to support it in Parliament.

Meanwhile European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker criticised Mrs May’s lack of clarity over what she was seeking from the future relationship.

“Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want,” he said.

“So 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.”

He added: “We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation, that is crystal clear. We can add clarifications but no real changes.

“There will be no legally binding obligations imposed on the withdrawal treaty.”

The Prime Minister, who on Wednesday survived a bruising vote of no confidence by Tory MPs, said a package of assurances around the backstop could “change the dynamic” at Westminster.

At the same time, she made clear a failure by EU leaders to offer concessions risked the collapse of the whole agreement with the UK leaving in March in a disorderly, no-deal Brexit.

“We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal – our deal – is at risk,” she said.

“I am in no doubt that the best result for all of us is to get this deal delivered in an orderly way and to get it done now.

“It is in none of our interests to run the risk of accidental no-deal with all the disruption that would bring, or to allow this to drag on any further.”

Theresa May with fellow EU leaders in Brussels (Alastair Grant/AP)

“Over the last few years I hope I have shown you can trust me to do what is right, not always what is easy, however difficult that might be for me politically,” she said.

“We must get this right and hold nothing in reserve. Let’s work together intensively to get this deal over the line in the best interests of all our people.”

Following her address, Mrs May took questions from the leaders of the 27, before leaving the summit while they discussed their response over dinner.

Earlier, No 10 said the Commons vote on the agreement would not now take place until the new year.

The vote had been due on Tuesday, but was dramatically pulled after the whips warned the Prime Minister she was heading for a heavy defeat unless she delayed.

The move, which was met with anger on all sides of the House, finally prompted the no confidence vote by Conservative MPs, with more than a third of parliamentary party voting to get rid of her.

Arriving in Brussels earlier, Mrs May acknowledged that with her own party divided and the opposition parties set against her agreement, she needed additional assurances regarding the backstop.

However, she made clear she was not expecting an “immediate breakthrough” during the course of the two-day gathering in the Belgian capital.

“My focus now is on ensuring that I can get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line,” she said.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, suggested there could be a special Brexit summit in January to agree “additional assurances”.

Other leaders indicated their willingness to help through “clarifications” to the backstop arrangements – intended to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland – but were adamant they would not re-open negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met Mrs May in Berlin on Tuesday, said: “I do not see that this Withdrawal Agreement can be changed.

“`We can discuss whether there should be additional assurances, but here the 27 member states will act very much in common and make their interests very clear.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We cannot reopen a legal agreement, we can’t renegotiate something which has been negotiated over several months. We can have a political discussion in this context.”

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who held a lengthy one-to-one meeting with Mrs May ahead of the main summit, said that while EU was keen to be “helpful”, some of the suggestions she had put forward were “difficult”.

In particular he warned there could be no “unilateral exit clause” on the backstop, as some MPs are demanding.

“If the backstop has an expiry date, if there is a unilateral exit clause, then it is not a backstop. That would be to render it inoperable,” he said.

“That would mean reopening the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement and the European Union is unequivocal that is not an option.”

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