EU leaders deliver pointed snub to Theresa May

Danish prime minister says it is now up to House of Commons to do its ‘homework’

EU leaders last night delivered a pointed snub to beleaguered British prime minister Theresa May.

They gave her political assurances that they see the backstop as a temporary measure, but refused to craft a legally binding declaration to that effect as she had sought. The leaders removed from a draft of the European Council conclusions a suggestion that they were “ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided”.

The amendment does not mean that they will not provide such assurances, but, as European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said “it is up to the British government to say what they want”.

It is expected that London will want to return in January with proposed wording for consideration by the council of any protocol, declaration, or clarification which it might like attached to the withdrawal treaty.


Some comfort

The leaders did provide some comfort to May. The conclusions say that they “stand ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal. . . It is the union’s firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31st December, 2020, alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.

“The European Council also underlines that, if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided.”

The text adds the explicit reference to the avoidance of a hard border. “In such a case,” the conclusions continue, “the union would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop, and would expect the same of the United Kingdom, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.”

Irish sensitivities

The draft was also amended to remove from that last sentence a reference to only being “in place for a short period” – the deletion reflects sensitivities by the Irish among others to any suggestion that the backstop would be time-limited.

They said that they wish to establish as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom in the future. And the leaders emphasised the need to step up “work on preparedness at all levels for the consequences of the UK’s withdrawal to be intensified, taking into account all possible outcomes.” With or without a deal.

Echoing Juncker’s sentiments Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen on his way out of the meeting placed firm responsibility for the next step on the House of Commons.

“Someday – somebody needs to say it. And you have to say – openly – that it is necessary that you get some homework done in the British parliament which has handled this challenge very different to what Denmark did, when the Danes voted No to Maastricht or as the Irish did when they voted No to Lisbon.

“In both countries someone took the responsibility on them to decide what do we do. In both Denmark and Ireland somebody took upon themselves to say what can unite us on our country and what should we ask from Europe. And here you need to say openly that it is that need you have in the United Kingdom now.”