European leaders will consider going at least some way to giving Theresa May what she’s asking for to sell her Brexit deal at home.
At a summit on Thursday, they were set to discuss publishing a new declaration to ease concerns about the most contentious part of last month’s Brexit deal — the so-called Irish backstop. The new text would have legal force, according to two EU diplomats, who declined to be named as the discussions are private, and still in the early stages.
Another gathering is likely to be called in January to sign off on any new declaration, they said.
The possible offer from the EU could help May as she battles against the odds to win support for her Brexit deal in the U.K. Parliament. Time is running out for agreeing to the terms of Britain’s divorce from the bloc but politicians in London overwhelmingly oppose the agreement as it stands.
If May can’t persuade Parliament to back her plan, Britain will be on course to crash out of the club of 28 countries in just over three months’ time, unleashing political and economic chaos.
On Monday, May was forced to cancel a planned parliamentary vote to ratify her Brexit deal because she knew she’d lose. Two days later, she was fighting an attempt to oust her as prime minister from members of her own Conservative party dismayed at her handling of the U.K.’s exit from the EU.
While May survived that confidence vote on Wednesday, she still faces a huge task trying to win sufficient new concessions from the EU in order to convince Parliament that her deal is worth supporting.
At the summit, May appealed to her European counterparts to help provide urgent political and legal reassurances on the backstop plan for the Irish border.
“We must get this right — let’s hold nothing in reserve,” May said, according to extracts of her speech released by her officials. “Let’s work together intensively to get this deal over the line in the bet interests of all our people.”
May was given the chance to present her case and take questions from her peers. She made three demands, according to another EU diplomat familiar with the proceedings:
Assurance that the bloc doesn’t want the backstop to be used An agreed political declaration on the future ties between the two sides to be added as an annex to the draft Withdrawal Agreement, so that it gains a legal standing in itself Additional clarifications on the backstop, with legal weight
Despite the potential move by the EU, there are still obstacles to overcome. Some countries are reluctant to sign up to the new idea. As they arrived at the summit on Thursday, leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron said no new legal changes could be made.
The biggest political problem May faces with the so called backstop guarantee for the Irish border is that it ties the U.K. into the EU’s customs regime indefinitely. That’s unacceptable to pro-Brexit Tories who want Britain to be free from European rules to strike free trade deals around the world.
According to two EU diplomats, European leaders will now consider whether to issue a memorandum then that could include an aspirational end-date for the backstop. The idea is to allay British lawmakers’ fears that the agreement could trap the U.K. in the EU’s orbit forever.
The backstop was designed as an insurance policy to prevent a new border on the island of Ireland, but it now applies to the whole U.K. and risks locking Britain into EU rules without a clear end in sight.
The declaration, which would avoid re-opening the Brexit divorce treaty but would sit alongside it, would have legal force. It would effectively oblige the EU to make all attempts possible to complete a full trade deal to replace the backstop by a set date, the diplomats said. The U.K. could take the EU to an independent arbitration panel if it believed this obligation hadn’t been fulfilled.
“We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the U.K. could not escape. Until we do, the deal — our deal — is at risk,” May said.
A package of further assurances from the EU on the backstop can change the “dynamic” in Parliament, May said, as she asked her counterparts to “trust” her judgement.
“There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal. So with the right assurances, this deal can be passed. Indeed, it is the only deal that is capable of getting through my Parliament.”
U.K. officials hope the two sides’ negotiating teams can sit down to start work on the new text immediately. British officials said they would also be open to changing the wording in the political declaration on the future U.K.-EU trade partnership, which is not legally binding.