British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Friday that further assurances on her Brexit deal were possible after European Union leaders told her they would not be renegotiating the agreement and scorned her stilted defence of Britain’s departure.
With the British parliament deadlocked, the ultimate end of the Brexit project remains unclear, with possible outcomes ranging from a disorderly departure with no deal to another referendum on European Union membership.
May, who on Wednesday survived a plot in her party to oust her, asked EU leaders at a summit in Brussels for political and legal assurances to help her convince the British parliament to approve her deal.
“Further clarification and discussion, following the Council’s conclusions is, in fact, possible,” May told reporters. “There is work still to do and we will be holding talks in coming days about how to obtain the further assurances.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out reopening last month’s agreement, aimed at ensuring a smooth exit on March 29, though leaders assured her that it should not bind Britain to EU rules forever.
After EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker said talks with the British over Brexit often led to “nebulous” debates, May was shown on official footage remonstrating with him.
What they said was not audible but May appeared agitated while Juncker held her by the arm, shook his head and raised his palm in an apparent effort to calm her before the Dutch prime minister arrived to interrupt them.
Asked if they had spoken about the “nebulous” remark, May said: “I had a robust discussion with Jean-Claude Juncker.”
The exchanges had echoes of a summit in Salzburg in September where EU leaders had been expected to demonstratively offer support for May. Instead, they were irritated by Britain’s tactics in the run-up to the meeting, and the event ended in acrimony.
“BREXIT MEANS BREXIT”
Diplomats said May had exasperated EU leaders on Thursday by failing to outline precise proposals for what she needed to push the deal through, and even at one point used her much-derided mantra of “Brexit means Brexit”.
“If this is all she has for us, there is no point trying too hard now,” one diplomat told Reuters. “She still needs to do her homework - maybe she’ll come back in January with something concrete and then we will see.”
“To say ‘Brexit means Brexit’ more than two years after it all started was what toughened the other leaders’ stance,” said the diplomat.
May’s allies at home said the summit was a useful start, but the opposition Labour Party said May had failed and called for the parliamentary vote on the deal that she postponed on Monday, fearing a heavy defeat, to be held next week.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Northern Irish party that props up May’s minority government, urged May to stand up to the EU and win legally binding changes to the deal.
On the currency market, sterling dropped almost one percent to $1.2539, and looked set for its biggest drop in seven weeks.
After a punishing week, May was asked by a reporter for Britain’s generally pro-Conservative Daily Mail which was worse - the malcontents at home or the ‘Euro bullies’ in Brussels - and whether she ever wanted to ditch her job and fly off to a remote island.
“Negotiations like this are always tough,” May said. “There are always difficult times and, as you get close to the very end, then that can get even more difficult because you’re absolutely sorting out the last details of something.”
May had asked for political and legal assurances that the so-called Northern Irish backstop would be temporary, and urged the leaders to look at her track record of delivering results even when the odds looked stacked against her.
The backstop is an insurance clause obliging Britain to follow EU trade regulations until a better way is found to avoid a “hard border” between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
May told EU leaders she believed there was “a majority in parliament who want to follow through on the referendum and leave with a negotiated deal” but cautioned that an accidental “no deal” departure was possible.
Diplomats said May indicated she would want to come back for a second bite of “assurances” with “legal force”, and some said they would be willing to listen and try to accommodate her.
But the EU also said it was prepared for Britain to exit with no deal, which would also mean no measures to smooth the transition.
“The signals we heard yesterday were not very reassuring about the capabilities of the UK to honour the arrangement that was concluded,” said Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel, “so we are going to be sure to prepare for all the scenarios, including a ‘no-deal’.”