Brexit deal 'not open for renegotiation', EU leaders say

The Brexit deal agreed between the European Union and the UK is "not open for renegotiation", EU leader have said, despite Theresa May's appeal for the assurances she needs to get the backing of MPs on it.

On Thursday, the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels where she insisted she could construct a Commons majority for the controversial Withdrawal Agreement, despite heavy criticism from all sides of the House.

Mrs May addressed the EU 27 who then held a working dinner without her, where they agreed the deal would not be legally altered.

Speaking after the dinner, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said the British "still need to say what they want instead of asking us what we want".

Jean-Claude Junker and Donald Tusk said the Withdrawal Agreement would not be legally altered. Credit: APTN

Mrs May was seeking assurances that the UK would not find itself tied to the EU indefinitely through the Northern Ireland “backstop”.

President of the European Council Donald Tusk said as soon as Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, the two sides would "establish a close relationship" and negotiations would start as soon as possible to avoid triggering the backstop, but added it must stay part of the deal to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and "ensure the integrity of the single market", should it be required.

Mr Tusk added that the European Council called for work on all possible outcomes to take place, indicating that a no deal Brexit is by no means off the cards.

  • ITV News Political Editor Robert Peston, who is in Brussels, said Mrs May's appeal means she is just "kicking the can down the road to an eventual crisis she will have to face up to", as the EU will not make any legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, meaning that all the Prime Minister can achieve from her meeting with the EU 27 is "warm words"

The Prime Minister, who on Wednesday survived a bruising vote of no confidence by Tory MPs, said a package of assurances around the backstop could “change the dynamic” at Westminster.

At the same time, she made clear a failure by EU leaders to offer concessions risked the collapse of the whole agreement with the UK leaving in March in a disorderly, no-deal Brexit.

“We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal – our deal – is at risk,” she said.

“I am in no doubt that the best result for all of us is to get this deal delivered in an orderly way and to get it done now.

“It is in none of our interests to run the risk of accidental no-deal with all the disruption that would bring, or to allow this to drag on any further.”

Theresa May with fellow EU leaders in Brussels Credit: Alastair Grant/AP

She ended with a highly personal appeal to EU leaders to put their trust in her to deliver on her promises and to give her the political room for manoeuvre she needs.

“Over the last few years I hope I have shown you can trust me to do what is right, not always what is easy, however difficult that might be for me politically,” she said.

“We must get this right and hold nothing in reserve. Let’s work together intensively to get this deal over the line in the best interests of all our people.”

Following her address, Mrs May took questions from the leaders of the 27, before leaving the summit while they discussed their response over dinner.

Earlier, No 10 said the Commons vote on the agreement would not now take place until the new year.

The vote had been due on Tuesday, but was dramatically pulled after the whips warned the Prime Minister she was heading for a heavy defeat unless she delayed.

The move, which was met with anger on all sides of the House, finally prompted the no confidence vote by Conservative MPs, with more than a third of parliamentary party voting to get rid of her.

Arriving in Brussels earlier, Mrs May acknowledged that with her own party divided and the opposition parties set against her agreement, she needed additional assurances regarding the backstop.

However, she made clear she was not expecting an “immediate breakthrough” during the course of the two-day gathering in the Belgian capital.

“My focus now is on ensuring that I can get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line,” she said.

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who currently holds the rotating EU presidency, suggested there could be a special Brexit summit in January to agree “additional assurances”.

Other leaders indicated their willingness to help through “clarifications” to the backstop arrangements – intended to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland – but were adamant they would not re-open negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who met Mrs May in Berlin on Tuesday, said: “I do not see that this Withdrawal Agreement can be changed.

“`We can discuss whether there should be additional assurances, but here the 27 member states will act very much in common and make their interests very clear.”

French President Emmanuel Macron said: “We cannot reopen a legal agreement, we can’t renegotiate something which has been negotiated over several months. We can have a political discussion in this context.”

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who held a lengthy one-to-one meeting with Mrs May ahead of the main summit, said that while EU was keen to be “helpful”, some of the suggestions she had put forward were “difficult”.

In particular he warned there could be no “unilateral exit clause” on the backstop, as some MPs are demanding.

“If the backstop has an expiry date, if there is a unilateral exit clause, then it is not a backstop. That would be to render it inoperable,” he said.

“That would mean reopening the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement and the European Union is unequivocal that is not an option.”