Brexit: Theresa May heads back to Brussels for further talks

May wants to renegotiate clause to avoid hard border on island of Ireland but EU shows no sign of budging.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May wants to re-open the Brexit withdrawal text [File: Matt Dunham/ AP Photo]
    British Prime Minister Theresa May wants to re-open the Brexit withdrawal text [File: Matt Dunham/ AP Photo]

    British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to return to Brussels on Wednesday in a new effort to re-open the terms of the Brexit divorce deal.

    With Britain due to crash out of the European Union without a deal in less than six weeks, May will meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker but EU officials say they will not restart negotiations.

    "I have great respect for Theresa May, for her courage and her assertiveness. We will have a friendly talk tomorrow, but I don't expect a breakthrough," Juncker said on Tuesday.

    May and the other 27 EU leaders reached a Brexit withdrawal agreement in November but the painstakingly negotiated deal was rejected by British parliament on January 15.

    Since the domestic defeat, May and her team have met with EU officials multiple times in a bid to restart negotiations in search of a deal that the British parliament would support.

    May will try again on Wednesday, but on this trip, she will not even meet European Council President Donald Tusk, who represents the leaders of the EU states.

    She will meet Juncker and Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, who have no mandate from Tusk's council or EU leaders to renegotiate the deal or modify the Irish backstop clause.


    The backstop will keep Britain within the EU's customs union until a way is found to ensure that a hard border is not reintroduced on the island of Ireland.

    Brexiteers in May's Conservative party see the clause as a trap that would keep Britain tied to the union indefinitely and have demanded a time limit or mechanism that would allow it to leave the customs union unilaterally.

    But Brussels has consistently rejected such a move, which would be seen as a betrayal of EU member Ireland.


    Britain's Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said on Wednesday he is hopeful May's Brexit deal would win support in the British parliament if the UK and EU could agree to changes to the backstop.

    "We can get this deal through parliament, if we can have a deal where the attorney general can change his advice to parliament. That is going to be key to unlocking it," Hunt said in a video clip posted on Twitter.

    "With vision and statesmanship on both sides, this can be done and I am hopeful it will be," Hunt added.

    May will meet President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday [Sebastian Gollnow/ DPA via AP]

    On Tuesday, the government said that plans to find alternatives to the backstop as a way to avoid a hard Irish border had been dropped for now.

    British Finance Minister Philip Hammond said on Tuesday "it is clear that the EU will not consider replacing the backstop with an alternative arrangement now", adding that the plan should be looked at again during the transition period.

    Instead, May is set to ask for legally binding assurances that the backstop will not be extended indefinitely.

    British MPs backed May's approach in a parliamentary vote earlier in February, but EU officials have shown no willingness to re-open the text.


    "We cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause," Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters on Tuesday.

    May's spokesperson said the prime minister was "working hard to secure legally binding changes" to the backstop.

    "The prime minister believes that she can secure changes in relation to the backstop that MPs want - there is a majority in parliament for a deal."

    If parliament does not approve the deal, then the UK will leave the bloc with no agreement or transition period to manage trade and economic relations.

    SOURCE: News agencies