Wounded by a battle with her own MPs, British Prime Minister Theresa May pleaded Thursday with EU leaders for concessions that might save her Brexit deal, while playing down hopes of a swift breakthrough.
May survived a confidence vote of her own party's lawmakers late on Wednesday, but she admitted as she arrived at the EU summit that she will not fight the next general election planned for 2022.
Instead, her focus is on salvaging her plan for an orderly Brexit and on persuading her European counterparts to offer guarantees that Britain will not remain trapped indefinitely in their customs union.
The other 27 EU leaders have agreed to draft a reassuring political statement, but remain firmly opposed to renegotiating a hard-won withdrawal deal they endorsed less than three weeks ago.
"My focus now is to get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line because I genuinely believe it's in the best interests of both sides, of the UK and the EU," May said.
"I don't expect an immediate breakthrough but what I do hope is that we can start to work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary."
European leaders have prepared a two-step plan that would see a brief political statement issued at the summit, followed in January by a legal interpretation of the deal.
"It's all about clarification tonight," said Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
May met EU President Donald Tusk in Brussels for what he called "last-minute talks" before joining the other European leaders.
EU members have a six-paragraph statement they hope will appease British concerns about the so-called "Irish backstop" and give life to May's effort to get the deal through parliament.
Last month the withdrawal accord was hailed as the end to a 17-month negotiation, and leaders dared hope they had saved Britain from crashing out of the union on March 29 without a deal.
But when May took it home, she ran into renewed opposition from hardline Brexiteers in her Conservative party and this week she baulked at putting it to a vote in parliament.
Now, with the vote delayed until January, she wants Europe to sweeten the offer with "reassurances" that measures to prevent the return of a hard border with Ireland will not last indefinitely.
- Two-stage offer -
According to European diplomats, the proposed summit statement would declare that any backstop "would only be in place for a short period and only as long as strictly necessary".
It will add: "The union stands ready to examine whether any further assurances can be provided. Such assurances will not change or contradict the withdrawal agreement."
This would not be the legally binding promise, sought by Brexiteers, that the backstop would not be used to bind the UK into a customs union indefinitely.
French President Emmanuel Macron said leaders could have a political discussion but he warned the legal text was not up for debate -- and insisted May had to come with ideas of her own.
"It is also up to Theresa May to tell us what political solution she has planned to build a majority around this deal," Macron said.
Brexit will once again dominate an EU summit which had been planned to deal with the thorny issues of migration, budgets and the eurozone.
- Backstop sell-by date? -
After May made a desperate three-capital European tour on Tuesday to seek assistance from fellow leaders, Tusk had said he would love to help her, but "the question is how".
European officials insist in public and in private that the backstop must stay. "The idea of a sell-by date won't stand," one said.
After meeting May one-on-one, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar stressed that the backstop must be part of the deal.
"As the EU we are very keen to offer explanations, assurances, clarifications, anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement, and hopefully to support it. But the backstop is not on the table," Varadkar said.
Anything May does come away with must convince her own party, its angry Northern Irish allies and a majority of British MPs to back the deal when it returns to for a vote before January 21.
Her victory in a confidence vote of Conservative MPs late Wednesday made her immune from further party leadership challenge for a year, but she was forced to admit she would quit by 2022.
And if the Brexit agreement is still found wanting not only would Britain and its main trading partners face economic chaos, but May could be finished off by a parliamentary vote of no confidence.