BRUSSELS: European leaders moved Wednesday to head off British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to rewrite the Brexit divorce deal, warning they will not budge.
Having thrown out the exit deal May negotiated with the European Union, divided British lawmakers voted Tuesday to send her back to get an Irish border “backstop” clause removed.
May seized on this as a chance to prevent Britain crashing out of the European Union on March 29 without an agreement on the terms of the split, vowing to return to Brussels to demand changes to the text.
But even she admits she faces a formidable challenge convincing Brussels to reopen an accord that took 18 excruciating months to conclude, and European leaders are so far united in dismissing any such manoeuvre.
“It’s an extraordinary situation when a prime minister and a government negotiates a deal and then goes back and during the ratification process votes against their own deal,” Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told RTE radio.
“That’s like saying in a negotiation, ‘Well either you give me what I want or I’m jumping out of the window’.”
In Brussels, ahead of a keenly anticipated speech by EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, frustrated officials including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier insisted the remaining 27 EU members were united.
A spokesman for EU Council President Donald Tusk swiftly insisted the Brexit deal was “not open for renegotiation”.
Echoing earlier warnings from French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, German leader Angela Merkel’s spokesman said reopening the deal was “not on the agenda”.
And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar insisted “renegotiation is not on the table”.
The “backstop” written into the negotiated deal is seen by EU leaders as an insurance policy against disrupting the Irish peace process.
It could legally lock the UK into EU trade rules indefinitely in order to keep the Irish border free-flowing.
Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the European Parliament’s six-member Brexit steering group, said the backstop clause was “absolutely needed” and there was hardly room to change the deal.
Going further, group member Philippe Lamberts was scathing.
“Saying you’re against the backstop is like saying you’re against bad weather. You might not like it, but you can’t change it,” he said.
Lamberts said May’s Euro-sceptic rivals would have to decide whether they were prepared to accept cosmetic changes to the divorce paperwork to avoid a “no deal” Brexit and a border in Ireland.
“Of course the UK does not want to build border posts, the EU will have to do it, but it won’t be the fault of Europe,” he said.
“There’s no question of calling into question the integrity of the single market to resolve problems inside the British Conservative Party.”
‘Throw of the dice’
London stocks rallied and the pound rebounded slightly after suffering heavy losses on fears of Britain leaving the EU without a deal.
Carolyn Fairbairn, who heads the Confederation of British Industry lobby group, said: “Renegotiation is a throw of the dice. It must succeed or fail fast.”
Tuesday night’s parliamentary amendment called for the backstop to be replaced with “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” — vague wording that did not pin May to any approach.
Also Tuesday, MPs backed a non-binding measure that “rejects the United Kingdom leaving the European Union without a withdrawal agreement”.
But they threw out another plan seeking to oblige May to request a delay to Brexit if no new deal with the EU emerges by February 26.
“I agree that we should not leave without a deal. However, simply opposing no-deal is not enough to stop it,” May told MPs.
She said parliament’s approval of the backstop amendment gave her the “mandate” to “seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement”.
May promised to give MPs a chance to vote on February 14 on what happens should she fail to win a new agreement.
The prime minister was due to talk to Tusk and Varadkar on Wednesday, and meet opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to discuss the way ahead.