EU - UK

EU ready to help May Brexit deal after Tory confidence vote

British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday 12 December, 2018
British Prime Minister Theresa May at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday 12 December, 2018 Oli SCARFF / AFP

UK Prime Minister Theresa May is in Brussels on Thursday after dodging a no-confidence bullet in her own parliamentary party on Wednesday night. EU leaders indicated they were ready to try to help her sell the Brexit deal she negotiated with them but not to actually change it.

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May was to address an EU summit on Thursday afternoon after surviving a no-confidence motion tabled by the most ardently pro-Brexit wing of her Conservative Party.

But 117 Tory MPs voted to oust her, compared to 200 backing her, and that only after she had pledged not to lead the party at the next general election.

May's position was already weak.

She was forced to postpone the vote on the Brexit deal earlier in the week, recognising that she would have lost.

But that vote must take place before 21 January, so she hopes that her Brussels trip will provide a means to change enough minds in the British parliament.

EU ready to help but ...

Prior to the summit, EU Council President Donald Tusk will meet May for "last-minute talks".

He has said that the Europeans want to help her but are not sure how they can do so.

Diplomats said Thursday all that will be on offer is a text of "clarification", which would not be legally binding.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has ruled out an changes in the deal, while French Foreign Affairs Minister has said "There will be no renegotiation", just "observations".

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurtz, whose country holds the EU's rotating presidency at the moment, also ruled out amending the deal, while saying that there was "a certain margin of manoeuvre" to bring the parties closer together.

Backstop controversy

The key point of contention is the "backstop" that is supposed to prevent a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK.

May's Northern Irish allies, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and the hardline Brexiters in her party, claim the proposed maintenance of a "single customs territory" would tie Britain to the EU permanently.

European diplomats have ruled out the idea of an expiration date but a six-point declaration has been drafted.

It promises that the backstop will be temporary, until a new agreement is reached between the EU and the UK, according to the Reuters news agency.

But, it insists, the wording of the deal will not be changed or renegotiated.

In a phone call with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar "agreed to work to provide reassurance to the UK" but stressed that "the agreement cannot be reopened or contradicted", Varadkar's office said.

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