Theresa May insists she has made Brexit progress despite snub by EU leaders

Posted On: 
14th December 2018

Theresa May has insisted fresh progress in Brexit talks remains "possible" just hours after the EU ruled out "legally binding" changes to the Northern Ireland backstop.

Mrs May addresses reporters after the EU Council summit.
Credit: 
Sky News.

The Prime Minister flew to Brussels to press for fresh assurances that the backstop - which would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU as a way of avoiding a hard border in Ireland - would be time-limited.

But Mrs May's call - which came after she was forced to pull a Commons vote on her deal - was rejected by Brussels, with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker openly accusing her of using "nebulous and imprecise" language.

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Speaking to reporters at the close of the two-day gathering, Mrs May said she had been "crystal clear" about her demands.

And she said the summit's conclusions - including a pledge from the EU's 27 member states to "work speedily on the future relationship" with Britain should be "welcomed".

"I note that there has been reporting that the EU is not willing to consider any further clarification," Mrs May said.

"The EU is clear as I am that if we are going to leave with a deal this is it.

"But my discussions with colleagues today have shown that further clarification and discussion following the council’s conclusions is in fact possible.

"There is work still to do and we will be holding talks in coming days about how to obtain the further assurances that the UK parliament needs in order to be able to approve the deal."

The Prime Minister's statement came as it was reported that Mr Juncker had reneged on a tentative agreement to support Mrs May.

According to the Times, top EU officials had agreed to release a statement providing the British side with "political comfort" on the backtop - only to change tack following a dinner of European leaders last night.

A senior Brussels source told the paper: "To use a Christmas theme, we want all parties and factions in the British parliament to feel the bleak midwinter."

Speaking this afternoon Mr Juncker said that “reopening the withdrawal agreement” was not an option. But he added that Mrs May was "a woman of great courage, doing a job in the best way possible,” he said. 

“I am supporting her,” he told reporters.

European Council President Donald Tusk said: "We are ready to reconfirm our assurances, our goodwill and our good faith when it comes to the so-called backstop.” 

'NEBULOUS'

In a major blow for the embattled Prime Minister, the EU last night ditched draft wording that would have provided "political and legal assurances" that the backstop would not be indefinite.

A separate pledge that the backstop "does not represent a desirable outcome" for the EU was also scrapped.

In a dramatic late-night press conference that triggered what Mrs May acknowledged had been a "robust" exchange when the two leaders met this morning, Mr Juncker said: "Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want.

"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."

And in comments which will infuriate Tory Brexiteers who wanted Mrs May to wring fresh concessions out of the EU, 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."

Speaking about her conversation with Mr Juncker this morning, the Prime Minister said: "I had a robust discussion with Jean-Claude Juncker.

"I think that is the sort of discussion you are able to have when you have developed a working relationship and you work well together and what came out of that was his clarity was that he had been talking - when he used that particular phrase - he had been talking about a general level of debate."

Mr Juncker later denied that he had called Mrs May "nebulous", saying he had been referring to "the overall state of the debate in Britain".

FOSTER: MAY MUST NOT ROLL OVER

In a sign of fresh pressure on Mrs May today, DUP leader Arlene Foster urged the Prime Minister to "stand up to" European leaders.

Mrs Foster - whose party Mrs May relies on for her majority in the House of Commons - has repeatedly savaged the backstop plan and called for it to be scrapped entirely.

She said: "The Prime Minister has promised to get legally binding changes.

"The reaction by the EU is unsurprising. They are doing what they always do.

"The key question is whether the PM will stand up to them or whether she will roll over as has happened previously."

Labour is meanwhile pushing for Mrs May bring the delayed vote on her Brexit deal before the House of Commons next week.

MPs had been expected to have their say this Tuesday, but the Prime Minister pulled the vote in the face of certain defeat and vowed to seek changes.

Downing Street has since said that the vote will not take place until the new year.

But Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: "Clearly confidence in the Prime Minister is seeping away on all sides.

"But for next week, what has to happen - first and foremost - is for her to make a statement, to answer questions about what's been going on this week. And then we must have this vote on her Brexit deal. It can't be put off any longer."

'DEAD IN THE WATER'

And Jeremy Corbyn fumed: “The last twenty four hours have confirmed that Theresa May’s Brexit deal is dead in the water.

“The Prime Minister has utterly failed in her attempts to deliver any meaningful changes to her botched deal.

“Rather than ploughing ahead and dangerously running down the clock, the Prime Minister needs to put her deal to a vote next week so Parliament can take back control.”