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EU leaders refuse to give May a helping hand on backstop dilemma

British Prime Minister Theresa May implored European Union leaders on Thursday and Friday to help her sell the Brexit divorce deal at home, only to be told that her proposals are not clear enough for the bloc to offer a helping hand now.

Saturday 15 December, 2018
Theresa May.
Theresa May. Foto:Cedoc

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Instead, the EU said it would plow ahead with plans for a cliff-edge “nodeal” Brexit on March 29, with a raft of contingency measures to be presented next week.

May came to an EU summit in Brussels Thursday seeking support after a week that saw her Brexit deal pilloried in Parliament and her job threatened by MPs from her own party. She pleaded with the 27 other EU leaders to “hold nothing in reserve” in helping her sell the Brexit deal back home.

“There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal, so with the right assurances this deal can be passed,” May said, warning her EU counterparts that failure could mean Britain crashing out of the bloc without a deal.

EU officials, however, seemed exasperated at the lack of concrete new ideas from Britain. A proposal for encouraging wording offering to give the UK further assurances was left out of the leaders’ final summit conclusions.

“I do find it uncomfortable that there is an impression perhaps in the UK that it is for the EU to propose solutions,” European Commission President JeanClaude Juncker said Friday. “It is the UK leaving the EU. And I would have thought it was rather more up to the British government to tell us exactly what they want.” He said the British must “set out their expectations” within weeks if they want to make progress.

The 27 other EU nations are adamant there can be no substantive changes to the legally binding agreement on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc and declared that the deal was “not open for renegotiation.”

The Brexit deal has many critics but one intractable issue — a legal guarantee designed to prevent physical border controls from being imposed between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Northern Ireland’s 1998 peace accord depends on having an open, invisible border with Ireland.

A Brexit provision known as the backstop would keep the UK part of the EU customs union if the two sides couldn’t agree on another way to avoid a hard border.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers strongly oppose the backstop, because it keeps Britain bound to EU trade rules and unable to leave without the bloc’s consent. ProEU politicians consider it an unwieldy, inferior alternative to staying in the bloc.

May told EU leaders that to win UK backing for the deal, “we have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape.” But while Britain would like a guarantee that the backstop will be temporary, the EU insists there can be no fixed end date.

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