Warm words but no Brexit concessions, as May leaves Brussels empty-handed

epaselect epa07228657 British Prime Minister Theresa May (C) is surrounded by colleagues at the start of the European Council in Brussels, Belgium, 13 December 2018. During their two days summit, European leaders will focus on the 'Brexit' and on the EU's budget for 2021- 2027. The Summit will resume on 14 December with the EU28 adoption of the conclusions on the Single Market, climate change, migration, disinformation, the fight against racism and xenophobia, and citizens' consultations. EPA-EFE/OLIVIER HOSLET

EU leaders took turns to praise Theresa May on Thursday night (13 December) but the British prime minister left Brussels empty-handed after promising her divided Conservative party that she would secure new concessions from EU leaders.

“We are ready to help,” Luxembourg’s Prime Minister told May as she entered the European Council building to address EU leaders.

That was echoed by Austria’s Sebastian Kurz who described May as a “tough negotiator.”

But those warms words did not mean any movement on the terms of the UK’s proposed Brexit deal.

May had made “a courageous fight but unfortunately, we are not seeing the results,” said Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

“There will be no renegotiation, that is clear”.

On 19 December the EU executive will publish all documents concluding preparedness of the Union for a no-del Brexit, Juncker said.

In fact, the summit conclusions agreed by the EU-27 appeared to represent a diplomatic victory for Ireland, with a paragraph stating that the EU “stands ready to assess if further reassurances can be provided to the UK” being removed.

In a small concession to the UK government, the conclusions add that, if used, the backstop “would apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided”.

For his part, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters that it was impossible to “fix the date (of the backstop) in writing”, adding that the Withdrawal Agreement was “the only deal possible”.

However, Rutte said that the EU had no intention to keep the UK in a state of “limbo” and would seek to quickly agree on a new trade deal.

Having survived a confidence vote called by her Conservative party on Wednesday, but at the expense of 117 of her 317 MPs voting against her, only 24 hours earlier, May addressed and took questions from EU leaders for nearly an hour.

Alongside a promise not to lead the Conservatives into the next general election, May is believed to have promised her party’s MPs that she would secure a “legally binding” change to the controversial Northern Irish backstop which would make it temporary.

But she appeared no closer to delivering on the latter pledge, having postponed a vote by MPs on her Brexit deal planned for Tuesday and instead of spending two days lobbying EU leaders.

One idea reported to have been mooted by the UK Prime Minister is to set a start date for a future trading relationship between the UK and EU, rather than set an end date for the backstop. But EU leaders again complained of a lack of clarity.

“We would like our British friends to tell us what they want rather than asking us what we want,” Juncker told reporters.

In the meantime, the EU executive will step up its planning for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, publishing a set of Brexit preparedness measures on 19 December.

UK media reports suggest that 14 January has been ear-marked as the date when MPs will finally vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and political declaration agreed between May and the EU in November.

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