By Agence France-Presse
EU leaders will host British Prime Minister Theresa May for talks in Brussels on Thursday as the two sides seek to save their Brexit deal.
Plans for Britain to leave the European Union on March 29 under a withdrawal agreement signed last year were thrown into doubt when British lawmakers rejected the accord.
Brussels is now waiting for May to formally request renewed talks while warning that the agreement itself cannot at this stage be reopened for discussion.
The British leader will meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker before holding separate talks with European Council president Donald Tusk, the two sides said.
“While the commission’s position is clear, we are waiting to see what the prime minister has to say,” Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters at his daily briefing Tuesday.
“A series of votes have taken place in the British parliament, upon the basis of which the prime minister will come to explain what comes next.”
The House of Commons last month overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal that May had negotiated with the EU over 18 months.
In a subsequent vote, a majority of MPs urged her to renegotiate the most controversial part of the agreement — the “backstop” arrangement intended to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
May’s government is now urgently looking into what changes might satisfy her MPs, who fear the backstop would keep Britain indefinitely tied to EU trade rules, with even closer alignment for Northern Ireland.
Speaking in Northern Ireland on Tuesday, May promised to seek a solution that keeps the Irish border open and preserves the peace agreement that ended years of sectarian violence in the British province.
“I know this is a concerning time for many people here in Northern Ireland,” May said, adding that prospects of last-minute negotiations “creates real anxieties here in Northern Ireland and in Ireland”.
“I believe there’s a yearning in the hearts of all the people of these islands for a close, trusting relationship between all of us, and an absolute horror that we should take even a single step backward in the progress we’ve collectively achieved,” she said.
May’s Brussels trip will come a day after Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar holds talks with EU leaders on Wednesday.
The impasse has led to heightened fears Britain could crash out of the EU, its closest trading partner, without a deal next month.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said during a trip to Tokyo on Tuesday: “Two months is not a long time but there is still time, and this should be used by all sides.”
The EU has repeatedly said it will not amend the backstop, but Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggested the bloc could agree to some form of legal assurances on how it might be used.
“The worst case scenario is no-deal Brexit and in our opinion, we should do what we can to avoid that, to look for some solutions, to be creative,” he told reporters in Brussels on Monday.
He declined to repeat his previous suggestion that the backstop could be given a five-year time limit — something Brussels and Dublin have rejected.
But he said: “Maybe you can envisage other legal guarantees without reopening the negotiations? In my opinion, it is possible.”
British MPs who met with Juncker’s right-hand man, Martin Selmayr, in Brussels on Monday said he did not rule out putting some kind of legal assurance on the backstop into the withdrawal deal.
But Selmayr himself rejected this, tweeting: “On the EU side, nobody is considering this.”