May Plays Down Hopes of Brexit Breakthrough: EU Summit Update

(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May meets European leaders at a summit in Brussels. She’s seeking tweaks to her unpopular Brexit deal to get it through Parliament. Times are CET.

Key Developments

  • EU leaders have the same message for May: clarifications are possible, not legally binding changes
  • May isn’t expecting an "immediate breakthrough"
  • Tweaks could be made to the agreement on the future relationship

The Stark View from Germany (4:10 p.m.)

The EU won’t be able to offer the U.K. enough to get the British Parliament to back the deal, according to an influential German lawmaker.

“In substance, the Europeans can’t offer her anything, because negotiations took place over months, including concessions to the British -- and so there’s nothing to undo there unless everything else becomes undone,” Norbert Roettgen, a Merkel ally who chairs the Bundestag foreign affairs committee, said in an interview.

EU leaders have so far only offered reassurances to May over the Irish backstop -- the most controversial part of the divorce deal. She’s seeking changes to make it more palatable to the majority of lawmakers who so far oppose it.

“I’m not sure what these reassurances should be. They won’t change anything for the treaty text. Reassurances? What should the British be reassured about? You can always find words," he said. His prediction of what next? A second referendum.

Tell Us What You Want (3:45 p.m.)

It’s been a theme throughout Brexit talks -- EU leaders have repeatedly said they need the U.K. to tell them what it wants. It’s been dragged out again in the run-up to this summit as the bloc says May needs to make clear exactly what changes she’s looking for.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite, who’s known for daring to say what everyone else is thinking at these events, sums it up:

Some Wiggle Room, But Changes Won’t be Legal (3:30 p.m.)

French President Emmanuel Macron was clear that whatever May is seeking, she can’t expect legal changes to the deal.

"We cannot reopen a legal accord, we cannot renegotiate. We can have a political discussion," he told reporters on the way into the summit.

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila also said any assurances May gets "can’t be legally binding." Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte hinted the same.

One possibility is to tweak the agreement on the future relationship -- a separate, non-binding document that sits alongside the divorce deal.

"There’s wiggle room in the political declaration on future ties," Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters.

Assurances could also include a pledge to move "expeditiously" to negotiate the future trade relationship, according to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

None of this looks likely to be enough to win over the majority in the U.K. Parliament that opposes May’s deal. The agreement is due to go to the House of Commons in January, after May pulled a vote this week to avoid a defeat. May’s team has said she’s looking for changes that are legally binding on the most contentious issue of all -- the Irish border.


Merkel Says Brexit Deal Can’t be Changed (2:55 p.m.)

Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered the same message as the leaders who arrived before her: Additional assurances are possible, but the agreement can’t be changed.

Rutte Says Working to ‘Demystify’ the Backstop (2:30 p.m.)

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the EU will try to "demystify" the backstop -- the most controversial part of the Brexit deal. He said "no one in their right mind" wants the backstop to be used. "It’s bad news for the EU if it’s triggered," he said.

That’s what Theresa May has been saying back home, so those comments will be at least a bit helpful.

Rutte said the deal can’t be re-opened. "Today is about clarification,” he told reporters .

May not expecting ‘immediate breakthrough’ (1:58 p.m.)

May Plays Down Hopes of Brexit Breakthrough: EU Summit Update

“What I’ll be talking to European leaders about here today is about what I think we need to get this deal over the line,” U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters before the summit. “I don’t expect an immediate breakthrough, but what I do hope is we can start work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary,” she said.

May says focused on getting deal over the line (1:53 p.m.)

“In my heart, I’d love to lead the Conservative Party to the next general election, but I think it’s right that the party feels it would prefer to go into that election with a new leader,” U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters before the summit. “My focus now is on ensuring that I can get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line.”

No ‘genuine changes’ possible, Bettel says (1:48 p.m.)

“We won’t be able to do genuine changes” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters in Brussels before the meeting of EU leaders. “I think renegotiating will be very, very hard. I really want to help her. We are open to be ready to help her,” he said.

Brexit negotiations ‘are concluded,’ Romania says (1:45 p.m.)

“We are ready to talk about how this deal may be better explained. We are ready to have some interpretation on some issues,” Romanian President Klaus Iohannis told reporters in Brussels. “But we are not renegotiating. The negotiations are concluded.”

Best for All to Get Brexit Over the Line, May Says (1:40 p.m.)

“I will be showing legal and political assurances that I believe we need to assuage the concerns that Members of Parliament have on this issue,” U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May told reporters. “I think the best arrangement for everybody -- the U.K. and the EU -- is for us to agree a deal.”

Bettel says not time for Brexit Christmas presents (12:34 p.m.)

“The time of concessions has passed,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel told reporters in Brussels. “We are just before Christmas, but it’s not time to make presents,” he said. “We are for the moment more united than politicians in the U.K. and I hope that they will be behind Theresa May to defend the deal.”

U.K. red lines make it difficult, Verhofstadt says (12:31 p.m.)

“We don’t want the Withdrawal Agreement reopened again,” European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt told reporters. The EU Parliament wants as close a relationship as possible between the U.K. and the EU, but “the red lines of the U.K. make it so difficult,” he said.

Rutte says not possible to renegotiate deal (12:27 p.m.)

“We all made very clear that renegotiating the resolved agreement is not possible,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in Brussels before the summit. “But I do sense that many of us are willing to look at ways to clarify what we collectively achieved and discussed and decided, particularly to make clear that the Northern Ireland backstop is both for the U.K. as well as for the European Union not desirable that it would come into force.”

Earlier:

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