May Heads to Brussels Seeking Escape From Brexit Backstop ‘Trap’

(Bloomberg) -- Theresa May heads to Brussels on Thursday seeking legally-binding changes to the Brexit deal she reached last year with her European Union counterparts, with little sign the two sides are close to a compromise.

The U.K. prime minister wants the EU to change the most contentious part of the divorce deal -- the Irish border backstop. Her main objective is to secure a guarantee that the U.K. "cannot, and will not, be trapped in the backstop," her office said late Wednesday.

May Heads to Brussels Seeking Escape From Brexit Backstop ‘Trap’

EU officials said they are braced for a tense set of talks between her, European Union President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that are unlikely to bear much fruit. That’s a view shared on the British side: A person familiar with the situation in London said Wednesday the government isn’t expecting May to bring a revised Brexit deal back to Parliament by Feb. 13, a self-imposed deadline.

With 50 days to go until Britain is due to leave the bloc, officials on both sides are trying to find a way forward, even as frustrations spill out into the open. Tusk on Wednesday referred to the “special place in hell” for Britain’s Brexit campaigners. That reflected a growing fear and frustration in Brussels that May is hostage to hardliners in her Conservative Party and will be unable to win their support.

A longer-than-scheduled, bad tempered phone call between May and Tusk a week ago prompted a surge of concern in EU circles that May is unable to get any divorce deal through Parliament, according to European officials who asked not to be named. Tusk was horrified that May was still asking the EU for solutions to end the impasse rather than coming up with credible ones of her own. A week later, the despair hasn’t subsided.

‘Meaningful Vote’

May has promised lawmakers that if she hasn’t secured a revised deal by Feb. 13, she’ll make a statement to Parliament and lay a motion that they could vote on the next day, giving them another chance to call for an extension of negotiations. But a U.K. official said the planned Feb 14 vote could be delayed. The Telegraph reports on Thursday that a “meaningful vote” on a new deal isn’t likely until the week beginning Feb. 25

The premier has told her warring Conservative Party she’s seeking one of three things: a time limit to the backstop, an exit mechanism from it, or alternative arrangements that rely on technology to keep an open border with Ireland after Brexit.

The latter is the preference of Brexiters, who have rallied behind a compromise proposal that revisits technological solutions that were proposed and rejected as unfeasible last year. It’s also the route most consistent with the House of Commons amendment that on Jan. 29 gave May license to seek to reopen negotiations.

The amendment states that it "requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements." When May said she wasn’t seeking to ditch the backstop altogether, it prompted a backlash from Brexiters. “Which bit of ’replaced’ was not clear?" one lawmaker, Mark Francois, asked May’s de-facto deputy, David Lidington, on Wednesday.

May’s visit is her first to Brussels since EU leaders refused to improve the Brexit deal at a summit in December. The deal was then rejected in Parliament in January by a historic margin. Parliament then mandated May on Jan 29 to go back to Brussels to renegotiate the backstop. If no deal gets through Parliament by March 29, then May will face the choice of letting the country crash out into legal limbo or extending membership in a humiliating U-turn.

For now, the premier is focusing efforts on getting a deal she can pass through the House of Commons relying mainly on the support of her Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.

‘End the Impasse’

Opposition Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn late Wednesday published the text of a letter to May outlining the changes she needs to make to the Brexit deal to secure his party’s support. They include membership of a customs union, close alignment with the single market, participation in EU agencies and and pledges on security and worker’s rights.

Part of May’s message to her EU counterparts will be that Labour, too, are seeking changes to the backstop, according to her office.

Tusk on Wednesday said he hopes May will come to Brussels with “a realistic suggestion on how to end the impasse."

The contents of last week’s 45-minute phone call between him and May -- the day after the House of Commons vote -- soon filtered down to EU governments. In their eyes, including those that are Britain’s natural allies, May now has little credibility left, two officials said, asking to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.