UK Prime Minister Theresa May may not have left her meetings in Brussels with EU leaders empty handed, but the assurances she secured from the EU-27 are far more limited than what the embattled British prime minister was looking for, as the bloc’s leaders toughened their stance.
The European Commission is now stepping up its no-deal scenario preparedness, announcing that another critical batch of documents will be released on December 19.
The EU-27 leaders, along with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, will now focus on preparations for the more unwelcome scenarios after the EU-27 renounced May’s pleas for additional “legally binding assurances” on the most difficult part of the agreement which would allow for an easier sell in the House of Commons, the so-called backstop of the Irish border.
While May would not be so naive to expect a “breakthrough” as she publicly admitted, she was expecting a helping hand. “We are ready to help,” offered her Luxembourg counterpart Xavier Bettel in front of the international press as she stepped inside the European Council.
By the end of the discussions, however the leaders of the EU-27 had hardened their stance during a press conference on December 13, as well as in the final summit conclusions.
This happened as the leaders worked to redraft what diplomats had previously finalised, a move that an EU official familiar with the situation said would only make things harder for May.
Earlier versions of leaked drafts of the summit’s conclusions included details that the EU-27 was willing to “examine whether any further assurance can be provided,” on the Irish backstop – the framwork guarantee that a hard border will not be established between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
This did nt make it to the final version, however, and the leaders instead signalled a fast-tracked trade deal in the future relationship.
The change of stance also echoed in leaders’ statements as Juncker said that May had led “a courageous fight, but unfortunately we are not seeing the results”.
Five small paragraphs that barely made it to one page, but even if size doesn’t always matter in these highly political texts, May was left with what Barnier has been reiterating since the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement was finalised in November.
If the leaders were willing to help, what went wrong?
According to people familiar with the developments, German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked May to make it clear to EU leaders what she was asking from them.
May’s failure to clearly articulate her position prompted Juncker to quip: “On Brexit, we expect the UK to provide clarity on its intentions and the next steps. We are ready for clarifications, but no renegotiation.”
Is this the end?
Leaders have in the background assured May that another round of talks is possible if the UK’s intentions become more clear. However, the initial plan of offering legal assurances and taking it to another Summit in January, was not agreed by the parties at this last rendezvous of the leaders for 2018. Now it is time for May to go back to London and fight to get a deal through the House of Commons.