- Theresa has begun a frantic diplomatic dash around Europe to try and secure support for tweaking her Brexit deal.
- The prime minister cancelled today’s vote on the Brexit deal amid fears she would be handed a crushing defeat, with many Tory MPs firmly opposed to the Northern Irish backstop measure.
- She is already running into fierce opposition, which appears very unlikely to offer any significant new concessions.
LONDON – Faced with the possibility of a crushing defeat on her Brexit deal, the embattled prime minister delayed the vote indefinitely on Monday, admitting she would have lost by a “significant” margin and promising she would return to Brussels to seek “assurances” from EU negotiators.
Now Theresa May has begun a day-long 1,500-mile dash around Europe in a bid to persuade Europe’s key players, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to provide her with much-needed help in somehow tweaking her deal to make it more appealing to Tory MPs, up to 100 of whom were ready to vote against the deal in Tuesday’s scheduled vote.
She has already met Dutch PM Mark Rutte, before heading to Berlin for a lunchtime meeting with Angela Merkel and finally stopping in Brussels for a meeting with European Council President Jean-Claude Juncker, and later European Council President Donald Tusk.
The meetings are vital to Theresa May’s prospects of getting her deal through parliament. She needs a significant breakthrough to convince Tory rebels to back her deal, most of whom are fiercely opposed to the “backstop” measure designed to avoid the emergence of a hard border in the island of Ireland.
But her chances appear slim because May is already running into heavy opposition in Europe, where there is a feeling the time for negotiations has passed. Jean-Claude Juncker said bluntly on Monday that Europe is not going to renegotiate Brexit, insisting the current Brexit deal is the best possible and that there is no room for renegotiation.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney also insisted the deal “is not going to change,” and said it is not possible for the UK to try and renegotiate the language of the legally binding Withdrawal Treaty.
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
Analysis: Backstop, backstop, backstop
Theresa May’s focus in her talks with the EU will be to seek assurances on a singular element of the deal, the Northern Irish “backstop” measure which is deeply unpopular with many Tory MPs. The backstop is an emergency option – a kind of insurance policy – which would kick in if the UK and EU had not wrapped up a free trade agreement by the end of the Brexit transition window in 2020.
While the backstop would mean that no hard border emerged on the island of Ireland, it would also mean the UK stayed in the EU’s customs territory with no obvious exit strategy and would require checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, something unpalatable to many Conservative MPs.
So heavy is the opposition to the backstop among May’s colleagues that securing cosmetic concessions – for example, an extra document which clarifies that both sides hope never to use the backstop – would be unlikely to swing the vote in the prime minister’s favour.
One Cabinet source confirmed to Business Insider yesterday that senior Brexiteers are insisting on an amendment to the backstop, perhaps including a guarantee that it will never be used, which Europe is highly unlikely to offer. Others have suggested that May secures a guarantee the backstop will end after one year, which would mean it was not the “all-weather” backstop the EU has always insisted on.
Europe already appears to have closed the door on renegotiating the deal itself, and it is unlikely to budge, so May’s prospects look bleak. The question now is whether May can persuade the likes of Chancellor Merkel and President Macron to strike a more conciliatory tone.
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