LONDON,. Theresa May told fellow EU leaders yesterday that she can get their Brexit divorce deal past British lawmakers if they promise new sweeteners ? such as a target date for a broad free trade deal.
The beleaguered British prime minister came to the EU summit one day after seeing off a challenge to her leadership from within her own party, desperate to salvage her Brexit plan.
In a meeting with her sympathetic but sceptical European counterparts, she urged them to make clear to her rebellious parliament that the Brexit withdrawal deal will not bind the UK into the EU customs union in perpetuity.
One idea, two diplomatic sources told AFP, would be to set a target date, after the end of the post-Brexit transition, to agree a free trade deal that would remove the need for the tricky “backstop” clause in the divorce pact.
“There is a majority in my parliament who want to leave with a deal,” May told the 27 other leaders of the European Union, according to a British official.
“So with the right assurances, this deal can be passed. Indeed it is the only deal that is capable of getting through my parliament.”
May has said she is seeking “legal and political assurances” over clauses in the text designed to keep the border with Ireland open.
‘Get this deal over the line’
The so-called backstop risks keeping Britain indefinitely in the EU’s customs union, something many Conservatives and May’s Northern Irish allies will not accept.
“We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK cannot escape. Until we do, the deal ? our deal ? is at risk,” May said.
May survived the confidence vote of her own party’s lawmakers late on Wednesday, but she admitted as she arrived at the EU summit that she will not fight the next general election planned for 2022.
Instead, her focus was on salvaging her plan for an orderly Brexit and on persuading her counterparts to offer guarantees that would convince the Westminster parliament to back the deal.
The 27 other EU leaders have agreed to draft a reassuring political statement, but remain firmly opposed to renegotiating the 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.”
European leaders have prepared 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.
EU members have discussed a 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”.
But 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.
French President Emmanuel Macron said leaders could have a political discussion but he warned the legal text was not up for debate ? and insisted May had to come with ideas of her own.
“It is also up to Theresa May to tell us what political solution she has planned to build a majority around this deal,” Macron said.
Backstop sell-by date?
After meeting May one-on-one, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar stressed that the backstop must be part of the deal.
“As the EU we are very keen to offer explanations, assurances, clarifications, anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement, and hopefully to support it. But the backstop is not on the table,” Varadkar said.
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. ? AFP