European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday (11 December) that the EU would be open to offer “clarifications” to British Prime Minister Theresa May, but insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement was the “best possible, the only possible” deal.
Speaking to the European Parliament’s plenary session in Strasbourg, Juncker admitted he was “surprised” at May’s decision to postpone the vote on the agreement scheduled for Tuesday in the UK Parliament.
May told MPs she would seek “assurances” from EU leaders about the backstop to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland.
“We reached an agreement” and “it is the best deal possible and the only deal possible”, Juncker told MEPs, repeating the message he already stressed following the Brexit summit on 25 November.
“There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation,” he insisted.
However, he remained open to discussing May’s concerns when they meet this evening.
“If used intelligently, (there) is room enough to give further clarification and further interpretations without opening the withdrawal agreement,” Juncker said.
May is also expected to meet with European Council President Donald Tusk before the European Summit on 13-14 December.
Tusk also said on Monday that the EU “will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification.”
“As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario”, Tusk wrote on his Twitter account.
May is trying to obtain guarantees from member states that the backstop for Northern Ireland would not need to be used, and is visiting Germany’s Angela Merkel and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Tuesday. Many in her own party fear that the backstop would leave the UK trapped in the customs union sine die.
The EU side is considering a declaration ‘stating the obvious’: that the backstop is an insurance that should not be used, sources told EURACTIV.com
However, EU legislators are sceptical about what else could be offered to guarantee that the backstop would be limited in time, if it were ever used.
They argue it needs to be available in case the negotiations on future relations fail to find a better solution.
Moreover, giving in to the hardliners of her Conservative party on this issue could leave the door open to further demands for approving the deal.
Juncker stressed the importance of having a ready-to-be-used backstop .
“Ireland will never be left alone,” he told MEPs
His message was supported by a majority of the legislators during the debate.
“The European Parliament is fully in line with you”, said Parliament President Antonio Tajani.
The head of the European People’s Party group, Manfred Weber, said the best way to avoid using the backstop is to reach the closest relationship possible in the forthcoming negotiations on the new association.
He agreed that further clarifications could be offered. But he also stressed that, when it comes to the backstop, “we are all Irish”.
Weber also said that the Brexit divorce brings a message to those who may want to leave the Union: It is “risky” to leave the EU. Instead, he urged everyone to continue reforming the bloc.
The leader of the Socialists and Democrats group, Udo Bullmann, considered as “good news” the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the UK’s option to unilaterally revoke the withdrawal notification.
Referring to increased demands in the UK for a second referendum, he told May that she should “let people have a say”.
Meanwhile, the chief of the liberal group, Guy Verhofstadt, stressed that “there is no way to renegotiate the backstop”.
He said that there would be no obstacle for May if she were to seek a “closer relationship” with the EU in the new association in order to avoid the backstop.
The EU-UK divorce will be discussed by the EU leaders on Thursday, as part of the two-day summit.
The European Council will also discuss the next Multi-annual Financial Framework [MFF – the EU’s seven-year budget], the deepening of the economic and monetary union, migration and climate change.
The social protests in France led by the ‘yellow vests’ were mentioned during the debate, with legislators voiced their frustration with the slow progress of efforts to strengthen and deepen the Union, either on the economic front and the migration agenda or in the negotiations to agree the next MFF.
Commenting on the negotiations on the EU’s next seven year budget, the Austrian presidency, said that it had prepared a draft negotiating box with all the MFF components but without any figures, in order to provide guidance for the negotiations.
Juncker still hopes to reach an agreement on the MFF before the European elections in May. However, the European Council’s draft conclusions have postponed the date until next autumn.