British Prime Minister Theresa May was firmly rebuffed Friday by European leaders, who rejected her bid to reopen negotiations on Britain’s deal to leave the European Union. They held out little hope of offering any legal assurances that would help her sell a contentious withdrawal agreement to an unenthusiastic House of Commons.
After testy behind-the-scenes exchanges in Brussels, and a textual hardening overnight of a communique from the national leaders of the EU’s 27 other member states, the embattled May continued to put a brave face on the rejection in a brief press conference Friday.
May told reporters she remained optimistic that the EU will agree to provide legal assurances, helping her to persuade Britain’s parliament to approve her contentious 585-page Brexit withdrawal agreement. She said “further clarification and discussion … are possible,” adding that this is “in the interest of both the EU and Britain.”
Analysts said there appeared to be little evidence that May will be able to squeeze out of the EU anything that would substantially alter the political dynamic in London.
If anything, the EU’s language appears to be hardening, with especially sharp rhetoric coming from France and Belgium.
May was pictured having an especially tense standoff with the European Commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, following comments he made during an overnight news conference, during which he berated May.
The EU’s spurning of May in Brussels is likely to worsen her plight in London, where she’s being described as a “zombie leader” and is still struggling to get a hold on her party, despite overcoming a challenge Wednesday to unseat her as Conservative party leader — and therefore prime minister.
Defiant Euroskeptic rebels, who want a clean, sharp break from the EU, say May still needs to go. They remain unrepentant after their failed bid to topple her. Most Conservative lawmakers who don’t have government positions voted against her during this past week’s no-confidence vote. Those who did back her said they did so in the faint hope that she might be able to wrangle something from the EU and that no other contenders for the leadership have a workable plan to get Britain out of its Brexit maze.
Even some of May’s ministers are making it clear she’s on probation and needs to secure a breakthrough from the EU or they will turn on her.
On Monday, May delayed a scheduled House of Commons vote on the Brexit deal as it became clear lawmakers were set to reject it by a large majority. Defeat would likely force May out of No. 10 Downing Street and possibly trigger the fall of the Conservative government and an early general election.
May’s deal, which was negotiated after almost two years of ill-tempered haggling between British and EU negotiators, tries to square the circle between Britons who want to remain in the EU, or closely tied to it, and Brexiters.
The deal would see Britain locked in a customs union with the EU for several years while it negotiates a more permanent, but vaguely defined, free trade settlement with its largest trading partner.
In the temporary customs union, Britain would be unable to influence EU laws, regulations and product standards it would have to observe. It would not be able to implement free trade deals with non-EU countries.
The transition was reached to avoid customs checks on the border separating Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but British lawmakers fear the EU will string out negotiations for years and that Britain could be trapped indefinitely in the transition. May is trying to get the EU to agree to a get-out clause.
As if to underline the door is closed on any significant changes, EU leaders barely mentioned Brexit in their opening remarks at a press conference concluding a two-day EU summit, focusing instead on reform plans for the bloc. Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz acknowledged, though, that in the past six months, European affairs have been “overshadowed by Brexit.”
EU officials say the British should be satisfied with their pledge to move quickly in negotiations over a subsequent free trade deal.
May’s leadership remains precarious and she is still at risk of being toppled, say Conservative party insiders. They compare her plight to that of Margaret Thatcher, who in 1990 won a vote of no confidence in her leadership but was forced to resign when Cabinet ministers one by one told her it was time to go.
“The lesson from 1990 is that there comes a moment when, even if a leader retains a paper majority, the gig is up,” according to commentator Max Hastings, a former editor of Britain’s pro-Conservative newspaper, The Telegraph.
“She’s a speech away from being brought down,” acknowledged a May loyalist in the Cabinet. Even ministers who backed May are indicating she’s not in full control.
Liam Fox, the international trade minister, said Thursday the Cabinet could block May from bringing her exit withdrawal deal before the House of Commons next month and that it might insist Britain’s scheduled departure date of March 29 be moved back several months to provide time for a fresh approach.
With parliament deadlocked and the ruling Conservative party hopelessly split, other senior ministers, including Deputy Prime Minister David Lidington, are now discussing semi-openly across party lines the possibility of holding a second referendum.
An increasing number of lawmakers say another referendum will likely have to be held, but, as ever with Brexit, nothing is simple. Even lawmakers are bitterly divided on what questions should be put to voters.