The EU wants to help, says Council President Donald Tusk, ‘the question is how.’
Nothing in The Hague. Nothing in Berlin. Nothing in Brussels. At each stop, Theresa May came up empty.
On the day she had hoped the House of Commons would vote to ratify her Brexit deal, the U.K. prime minister instead scrambled to meet EU leaders after postponing the vote to avoid certain defeat.
But her counterparts on the Continent had nothing to offer her except warm words, sympathy and "clarifications" — certainly nothing that would immediately change the minds of her skeptical backbenchers or ease her awful political predicament.
First at breakfast with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, then with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — where, adding insult to injury, May was briefly locked in her car — and finally at the European institutions with Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, May was told the deal cannot be renegotiated.
Ahead of the Juncker meeting, May spoke of a "shared determination" to get the Brexit deal ratified. But at best, EU leaders are willing to offer some reassurance that a "backstop" provision to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland is not intended to be used — ever — and even if it becomes necessary, the EU will not use it to trap the U.K.
One difficulty for Brussels is to know what they can realistically offer that will move the dial in London — beyond dismantling the Irish backstop that they see as essential.
MPs in Westminster are concerned that because the U.K. would not be able to exit the customs and regulatory arrangement unilaterally, Brussels might use it as leverage to get a better outcome on trade or fishing access in talks to come on the deal encompassing the U.K.'s eventual economic relationship with the bloc.
"We don’t want the backstop to be used and if it is we want to be certain that it is only temporary," May said in Brussels, "And it is those assurances that I will be seeking from fellow leaders over the coming days."
EU leaders are happy to make political assurances but they are not willing to reopen the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement, which was completed in November after 16 months of talks. Juncker summed up the bloc's position in an early morning speech to the European Parliament: "There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation."
What EU officials have in mind is far less fundamental. At a meeting of EU ambassadors Wednesday to discuss Brexit, Jeppe Tranholm-Mikkelsen, secretary-general of the Council, will simply provide further details on the discussion that EU27 leaders will have on Brexit Thursday — the first day of a regular European Council summit.May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin | Michele Tantussi/Getty Images
No amendments or new documents will be put on the table, said a EU official. All that is expected from the Wednesday ambassadors' meeting is for member countries to ask for clarifications on the texts already agreed. The EU's deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand will also be there to respond to questions.
If MPs in London who are skeptical of the deal hope that there is a backroom operation at work in Brussels to redraft the Withdrawal Agreement, they are very wide of the mark, diplomats say.
After stopping back in London for her regular weekly appearance in the Commons for Prime Minister's Questions, May's European tour resumes on Wednesday with a stop in Dublin to see Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar. Then she's back in Brussels for the summit on Thursday.
Varadkar noted Tuesday that, in accordance with a ruling by the European Court of Justice, May could unilaterally stop or delay the Brexit process. Indeed, that option is one of the few obvious escape routes given that more than 100 British MPs have stated their opposition to May's Brexit plan, and no substantive changes to it are in store. But May has repeatedly vowed she will not countenance a delay or cancellation of Brexit.
One difficulty for Brussels is to know what they can realistically offer that will move the dial in London — beyond dismantling the backstop that they see as an essential safeguard for peace at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
A senior EU official noted that the British parliament appeared to be paralyzed with no viable majority for any potential path forward — not for May's deal; not for withdrawing the Article 50 notification; not for crashing out with no deal; not for a second referendum.
EU exasperation with Brexit is becoming more vocal.
"Actually I don't see a majority on anything, that's the problem," the official said. "All options available do not rally a majority."
After his meeting with May, Tusk tweeted that "the EU27 wants to help. The question is how."
An EU diplomat asked, “If leaders were to give her a declaration [on some aspect of the withdrawal deal] now or in the future, can she guarantee it passes in parliament? Or will we end up paying twice?”
"Nothing bar a no-deal will ever be enough for Boris [Johnson] and co. Nothing bar EU membership will be good enough for Jo [Johnson] and co. And nothing bar a Labour government will be enough for Jeremy [Corbyn]," said the diplomat, laying out the seemingly unbridgeable differences between Brexiteers like the former foreign secretary, Remainers like his brother who resigned from the government last month, and the leader of the opposition.
Meanwhile, EU exasperation with Brexit is becoming more vocal. Manfred Weber, the German MEP who heads the European People's Party group in the European Parliament, said in a speech in Strasbourg Tuesday that he believed enough time had been spent on the EU's departure and he wanted to focus on the bloc's future instead.
“We are negotiating now for one and a half years on the Brexit treaty," Weber said, making no effort to hide his frustration. "We negotiated more among the different British camps than between the EU and Great Britain. And then we have a final agreement on the table accepted by the British government and also accepted by 27 EU governments. And now? And now we see again a reopening, a try of renegotiating the whole thing. I think we lost already too much time discussing Brexit.”
"We don't play this game," he said.
This article has been republished from www.politico.eu