Theresa May has set-off on a diplomatic blitz of Europe in a last ditch bid to improve the Brexit deal – but EU leaders have warned the prime minister she will not come away with any concessions.
After postponing the ‘meaningful vote’ to avoid a humiliating defeat, embattled May is embarking on a whistle stop tour of European capitals to ask for help in getting the deal past MPs.
After visits to the Hague and Berlin, her final stop on Tuesday will be Brussels where she will meet European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
But Juncker has already crushed any hopes May had of making substantial changes to the deal – especially over the backstop.
“There is no room whatsoever for renegotiating,” Juncker said during a speech to the European parliament just hours ahead of his meeting with May.
“This will not happen – everyone needs to know the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened.”
I will meet @theresa_may this evening in Brussels. I remain convinced that the #Brexit deal we have is the best – and only – deal possible. There is no room for renegotiation, but further clarifications are possible.
— Jean-Claude Juncker (@JunckerEU) December 11, 2018
European parliament president Antonio Tajani added: “It’s good to have discussions, to meet with Mrs May but we won’t be changing our position.”
And, speaking as he arrived at an EU meeting in Brussels, German Europe minister Michael Roth described any further negotiations as a “fantasy.”
Expressing the sense of Brexit fatigue on the EU side, he said: “We spent so much time, energy and creativity to negotiate something we in Berlin and Brussels don’t want.”
Juncker recognised that the backstop is a “big problem” for many MPs, but insisted it is “necessary for the entire coherence of what we have agreed with Britain.”
The commission chief said though that there is room for “further clarifications and further interpretations without opening the withdrawal agreement.”
Two UK MEPs told him that would not be enough to win over the Commons. Labour’s Richard Corbett warned: “I’m convinced that when this deal, even with extra clarifications, comes back to the British parliament it will still be rejected.”
And the DUP’s Diane Dodds said: “Quite frankly, to believe that this will succeed in the House of Commons is indeed magical thinking.”
As well as Juncker, May is meeting with Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, German chancellor Angela Merkel and European council president Donald Tusk.
The meetings come ahead of a summit of EU leaders in Brussels which begins on Thursday. Brexit was not meant to be on the agenda but was added at the last minute after May’s failure to get the deal through the UK parliament.
Brexit minister Martin Callanan told reports in Brussels that May will “seek additional reassurances that MPs have asked for that the UK cannot be trapped permanently in the backstop.”
The prime minister is likely to come away from the summit with a statement from the EU clarifying that it is not their intention to use the backstop.
It is likely t be similar to the statement given to Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez at the last summit to placate his protects over Gibraltar. While it was substantial politically, it was not legally binding.
Manfred Weber, the frontrunner to replace Juncker as Commission president, told MEPs the best way to avoid the backstop being used was for the UK to agreed a Norway-style deal with the EU, which would involve accepting freedom of movement.
European parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt also told May: “If she is looking for a closer relationship with the EU to avoid the use of this backstop, there will be no obstacle, no problem.”