Britain's May to meet EU leaders on Brexit
BRUSSELS, Belgium – EU president Jean-Claude Juncker will host British Prime Minister Theresa May for talks in Brussels on Thursday, February 7, as the two sides seek to save their Brexit deal.
Plans for Britain to leave the European Union on March 29 under a withdrawal agreement signed last year were thrown into doubt when British lawmakers rejected the accord.
Brussels is now waiting for May to formally request renewed talks, while warning that the agreement itself cannot at this stage be reopened for discussion.
"While the commission's position is clear, we are waiting to see what the prime minister has to say," Juncker's spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters at his daily briefing Tuesday, February 5.
"A series of votes has taken place in the British parliament, upon the basis of which the prime minister will come to explain what comes next."
The House of Commons last month overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that May had negotiated with the EU over almost two years.
In a subsequent vote, a majority of MPs urged her to renegotiate the most controversial part of the agreement, the "backstop" arrangement intended to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
May's government is now urgently looking into what changes might satisfy her MPs, who fear the backstop would keep Britain indefinitely tied to EU trade rules, with even closer alignment for Northern Ireland.
Confirming Thursday's talks, the prime minister's spokesman said: "You can expect her to update the European Commission president on the discussions that have been taking place at home and the way forward."
May will visit Juncker at the commission's Berlaymont headquarters a day after Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar holds talks with EU leaders on Wednesday, February 6.
May is visiting Northern Ireland on Tuesday and Wednesday to discuss the issue with local businesses, community groups and politicians.
The impasse has led to heightened fears Britain could crash out of the EU, its closest trading partner, without a deal in just a few weeks.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a trip to Tokyo on Tuesday: "Two months is not a long time but there is still time, and this should be used by all sides."
The EU has repeatedly said it will not amend the backstop, but Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested the bloc could agree to some form of legal assurances on how it might be used.
"The worst case scenario is no deal Brexit and in our opinion we should do what we can to avoid that, to look for some solutions, to be creative," he told reporters in Brussels on Monday, February 4.
He declined to repeat his previous suggestion that the backstop could be given a 5-year time limit – something Brussels and Dublin have rejected.
But he said: "Maybe you can envisage other legal guarantees without reopening the negotiations? In my opinion it is possible."
British MPs who met with Juncker's right-hand man, Martin Selmayr, in Brussels on Monday said he did not rule out putting some kind of legal assurance on the backstop into the withdrawal deal.
But Selmayr himself rejected this, tweeting: "On the EU side, nobody is considering this." – Rappler.com