EU leaders reject May’s plea to redefine Border backstop

‘We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation whatsoever,’ says Juncker

European Union leaders have rejected Theresa May’s plea to redefine the Border backstop, insisting the guarantee of no hard border in Ireland cannot be renegotiated.

The European Council on Thursday night refused to give the British prime minister the legal assurances she sought that the backstop would be temporary. Leaders also deleted from their draft conclusions a reference to being “ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided”.

Speaking to journalists, the president of the European Commission Jean Claude Juncker said it would be up to the UK to “say what they want”, not for the leaders to propose solutions. He appeared to leave open the possibility the UK could come back with proposed legal text in January.

Amid growing impatience on the part of the EU 27 with the UK’s approach to the negotiations, EU leaders hardened language on the backstop that had appeared in an earlier draft of the summit conclusions.


“We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation whatsoever,” said Mr Juncker.

But EU leaders said they gave Mrs May assurances they would seek to agree a new deal with Britain by 2021 so that the backstop was never triggered.

The leaders said they wanted to underline that the backstop was “intended as an insurance policy”. They said they were determined to “work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by December 31st, 2020, alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.”

Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the leaders had heard Mrs May express concerns the backstop could potentially apply indefinitely.

“In the session afterwards we defined two things, firstly that the withdrawal agreement cannot be re-opened and renegotiated and secondly stipulated and made clear that the so-called backstop, the ruling for Northern Ireland should be temporary and not permanent,” he told reporters.

Mrs May had warned EU leaders they risked a no-deal Brexit unless they could reassure MPs the backstop would be temporary.

Speaking in Brussels less than 24 hours after she survived a confidence vote in her leadership, she said a majority at Westminster wanted to leave the EU with a negotiated deal.

“But we have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal, our deal, is at risk,” she said.

Earlier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had a 50-minute meeting with Mrs May in advance of the European Council meeting at which Mrs May made suggestions about ways of offering the UK assurances about the operation and duration of the backstop. Mr Varadkar told Mrs May that some of her ideas could be acceptable but others could not, although he declined to elaborate when asked.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times