Bruised May back in Brussels

Prime minister seeks to extract concessions from EU

prime minister Theresa May
prime minister Theresa May
Image: Supplied

Britain’s weakened prime minister, Theresa May, arrived in Brussels on Thursday to lobby European leaders for help after she survived a parliamentary mutiny that highlighted the deadlock over Brexit.

May, 62, won the backing of 200 Conservative Party members of parliament versus 117 against, in a secret ballot that deepened divisions just weeks before parliament needs to approve a deal to prevent a disorderly exit from the European Union.

In Britain’s biggest decision for decades, Brexit has split the nation and will shape the future of its economy, including London’s status as a global financial hub.

Pro-Europeans fear exit will weaken the West, already struggling to assimilate Russian and Chinese power as well as Donald Trump’s unpredictable US presidency.

Brexit supporters hail it as casting off a flailing Germanled European project.

Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said May, who has been shuttling round Europe for months and will attend an EU summit until Friday afternoon, would seek assurances Britain would not be tied to the EU indefinitely post-Brexit, as her party critics fear.

No vote on the Brexit package was included in a schedule of parliamentary business for the coming week before Christmas and European leaders look unlikely to offer immediate support.

A draft EU statement said they were merely ready to examine whether further assurance could be given.

The six-point EU document said any assurances would not change or contradict the legally binding withdrawal agreement struck in November after two years of negotiations.

Earlier this week, May pulled a parliamentary vote on her deal, designed to maintain close future ties with the bloc, after admitting it would be heavily defeated in the House of Commons.

She has pledged a new vote before January 21, but faces a tall order to convince sceptical legislators.

With Britain due to leave the EU on March 29, prospects now include a potentially disorderly exit with no deal, or even another referendum.

May, who met Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Brussels and will shortly see EU summit chair Donald Tusk, wants legal assurances that the Irish “backstop” will not remain in place indefinitely.

The backstop is an emergency fix to prevent extensive border checks on the island of Ireland and is the most contentious element of the deal.

“A significant number of colleagues did cast a vote against me and I’ve listened to what they said,” May said in Downing Street late on Wednesday.

“We now have to get on with the job of delivering Brexit for the British people.”

The EU’s draft statement reiterated that the bloc prefers a new deal to ever triggering the Irish backstop and that it would try to swiftly conclude such an accord even if the emergency border fix kicks in.

EU states were not in agreement on the text on Thursday however, and diplomats in Brussels expect it to change.

They suggested the bloc may be readying more solid assurances for May in January.

May, who said on Wednesday she would not be standing in the next election due for 2022, has to secure some improvement on her deal if she is to have any hope of parliamentary approval.