May will seek “legal and political reassurances” from European officials at the start of an EU council summit on Thursday, over the widely maligned backstop clause in her Brexit divorce deal.
EU leaders have so far shown no willingness publicly to renegotiate any aspect of the Brexit deal struck with the United Kingdom in November.
Critics of the backstop, which would guarantee no hard border is erected on the island of Ireland in the event that post-Brexit trade negotiations between the UK and the bloc prove unsuccessful, argue it could tie the UK into the EU’s orbit indefinitely.
That’s because the clause proposes that the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, remain in a customs union with the EU “unless and until” the bloc agrees there is no prospect of a return to a hard border.
The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which May relies on to command a majority in the British parliament, have cautioned meanwhile that it could lead to Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the UK.
Vote of confidence
May’s dash to Brussels comes after a week of domestic political turmoil in the UK.
Vociferous opposition to her withdrawal plan – brokered after months of arduous negotiations between London and Brussels – forced the British leader to pull a parliamentary vote on it scheduled for Tuesday.
Acknowledging the proposal would have been heavily defeated by members of the UK’s lower Chamber House of Commons, May instead embarked on a whistle-stop tour of several European cities aimed at winning reassurances from EU leaders over the backstop clause.
But her efforts were derailed somewhat when she was forced to abandon a meeting with Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar after gruntled parliamentary members of her ruling Conservative Party triggered a vote of confidence in her leadership, breaching the 48 demands needed to do so early on Wednesday morning.
May survived the secret ballot, held in the Commons on Wednesday evening, with 200 Conservative MPs voting in support of her and 117 opting against the 62-year-old.
In the wake of the vote, she said the government had a “renewed mission to deliver the Brexit people voted for” and vowed to “assuage the concerns that members of parliament have” on the backstop by winning reassurances in Brussels on Thursday.
Analysts cautioned May was substantially weakened by the vote, however, and had “less authority, power and credibility”.
“She will not be able to push through her deal under any circumstances, she will try and she will fail, and there will be a paralysis of parliament,” Jonathan Lis, deputy director of the think-tank British Influence, said.
May has promised parliament a rescheduled vote on her withdrawal plan before January 21, ahead of the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU on March 29.
EU: No renegotiation
European leaders, meanwhile, have refused to countenance changes to any aspects of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop proposal.
On Thursday, the European Parliament’s governing body issued a statement saying the Brexit deal was “not open to renegotiation”.
“The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration are fair and balanced and represent, given EU principles, current UK red lines and the commitments set out in the Good Friday Agreement, the only deal possible to ensure an orderly withdrawal from the European Union,” the statement said.
EU experts said the most May might be likely to get out of the bloc’s officials would be some “nicely polished words” to help her sell the divorce deal at home.
“What they [EU leaders] will probably do is again repeat that their intention and desire is to work towards arrangements which obviate the need for the backstop,” Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said.
“[But] What’s happening in London these days does only reassure the EU that they shouldn’t be leaning towards any demands concerning unilateral withdrawal from the backstop … [because] the UK is not a predictable partner any longer,” she added.
The ongoing uncertainty over Britain’s high-drama Brexit process has raised fears that the country could exit the EU without a deal on the terms of its departure, however, and disrupted the country’s currency valuation against the US dollar and the euro.
The UK’s central bank has warned that Britain’s gross domestic product could shrink by up to eight percent in such a scenario. The government, for its part, has forecast a potential economic slump of more than nine percent in the wake of a no-deal Brexit.