EU leaders moved Wednesday to head off British Prime Minister Theresa May’s bid to rewrite the Brexit divorce deal, warning they will not budge.
Having thrown out the exit deal May negotiated with the EU, divided British lawmakers voted Tuesday to send her back to get an Irish border “backstop” clause removed.
May seized on this as a chance to prevent Britain crashing out of the European Union on March 29 without an agreement, vowing to return to Brussels to demand changes to the text.
But even she admits she faces a formidable challenge convincing Brussels to re-open an accord that took 18 excruciating months to conclude, and European leaders are so far united in dismissing any such manoeuvre.
“My message to PM @theresa_may: The EU position is clear and consistent. The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation,” EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeted.
“Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the UK does want,” he added.
Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney said it was “an extraordinary situation when a prime minister and a government negotiates a deal and then goes back and during the ratification process votes against their own deal”.
“That’s like saying in a negotiation, ‘Well either you give me what I want or I’m jumping out of the window’,” he told RTE radio.
Other frustrated EU officials including Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier insisted the remaining 27 EU members were united and determined not to abandon the backstop clause they believe is key to maintaining peace on the border.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker addressed the European Parliament to push home the message that the withdrawal agreement would not be re-negotiated.
And he warned that the British vote had only “increased the risk of a disorderly withdrawal” and of Northern Ireland “slipping back into darker times past”.
Echoing earlier warnings from French President Emmanuel Macron and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, German leader Angela Merkel’s spokesman said reopening the deal was “not on the agenda”.
And Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar insisted “renegotiation is not on the table”.
May’s spokesman said she had been aware that “this wasn’t going to be an easy process” but that: “What the vote has actually done is set out what parliament requires in order to be able to pass this vote.”
The “backstop” written into the negotiated deal is seen by EU leaders as an insurance policy against disrupting the Irish peace process.
Guy Verhofstadt, who heads the European Parliament’s six-member Brexit steering group, said the backstop clause was “absolutely needed” and there was hardly room to change the deal.