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May given official notice EU won't re-open withdrawal deal in 'robust' talks

Jean-Claude Juncker has, however, said he’s open to adding wording to the political declaration.

Image: Geert Vanden Wijngaert/AP/Press Association Images

Updated Feb 7th 2019, 10:43 PM

THERESA MAY HAS been told that the EU will not re-open negotiations on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. 

Jean-Claude Juncker and the British prime minister have however agreed to hold further talks on Britain’s withdrawal, after what they described as a “robust” meeting.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier will meet Britain’s Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay on Monday in Strasbourg and May and Juncker themselves will get back together before the end of February, a spokesman said.

In a joint statement issued after May met the European Commission President in Brussels, the pair confirmed that Juncker had warned the British premier that the Brexit withdrawal deal could not be looked at again. 

He “expressed his openness to add wording” to a parallel political declaration laying out ambitions for future EU-UK ties if London wants to seek a “more ambitious” closer relationship after Brexit.

“The discussion was robust but constructive,” the joint statement today said.

Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council.

As UK political commentators have observed, the release of this joint assessment of the situation appears to end hopes that May can get a Brexit deal through the House of Commons with the support of the Brexiteer wing of her party. 

‘Alternative arrangements’

May, according to the statement, had urged that the withdrawal agreement itself be changed, and reminded Juncker that the British parliament had mandated her to seek “a legally binding change to the terms of the backstop”.

Theresa May’s cabinet last November backed an agreement on the backstop that would see Northern Ireland aligned to some rules of the single market if alternative solutions could not be found by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. 

The revised backstop plan, which would also effectively keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU until both parties no longer deemed it necessary, has been roundly rejected by Brexiteer MPs.

Last week those MPs lent their support to a new amendment proposing replacing the Irish backstop with unspecified “alternative arrangements”, as the proposal gained the support of a majority of the House of Commons. 

After his own talks with May, EU President Donald Tusk warned there was “no breakthrough in sight”, although the British leader said she had seen willingness from Brussels to find a deal.

Tusk today apparently suggested to May that she study a plan laid out by British opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

May has already rejected the proposal for an EU-UK customs union, but the EU leader said it “might be a promising way out of the impasse”, the official told AFP.

Speaking to reporters as she left Brussels, May said she had spelled out Britain’s “clear position” that legally-binding changes are needed to the so-called backstop plan for the Irish border.

If no agreement is reached on the withdrawal deal, which has yet to be approved by either the British or EU parliaments, Britain will crash out of the union with no follow-on trade arrangements on 29 March.

Includes reporting from - © AFP, 2019

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Daragh Brophy

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