May and Juncker speak amid struggle to break Brexit impasse

British prime minister battling to obtain further assurances on Border backstop

The phone call between British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was described by Brussels as “friendly”. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

The phone call between British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker was described by Brussels as “friendly”. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

 

Theresa May has spoken to Jean-Claude Juncker as part of her effort to obtain further written reassurances that the Irish Border backstop in her Brexit deal would never come into force.

The phone call between the British prime minister and the European Commission president on Friday was described by Brussels as “friendly” but Downing Street refused to provide any further details, as Mrs May struggles to break the Brexit impasse.

She is still hoping to obtain additional clarifications over the backstop before MPs vote on the deal in the week of January 14th, although it is not clear what Mrs May can get that would satisfy Tory rebels and the Democratic Unionist Party.

A backstop is required to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland if a comprehensive free-trade deal cannot be signed before the end of 2020.

Mrs May is likely to begin the political year talking about the long-term future of the UK national health service on BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, followed by a visit to Liverpool on Monday.

Mrs May has recently spoken to the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. The discussions were initially confirmed by the offices of Mr Tusk and Dr Merkel. Number 10 will not otherwise say who the prime minister has spoken to, unless the counterpart does so first.

A European Commission spokeswoman described the call between Mr Juncker and Mrs May as “friendly” and said they “agreed to stay in touch next week” when Westminster returns from its Christmas break and the debate on the meaningful vote will restart.

The Commons will discuss Mrs May’s Brexit deal on Wednesday after prime minister’s questions, continuing on Thursday and possibly Friday. The final vote, pulled last month after the prime minister admitted she would lose by a “significant margin”, is due to follow in the middle of the week following.

Ratification legislation

Time is narrowing for Mrs May’s deal to be approved before March 29th, because once MPs agree in principle, ratification legislation will have to be voted through by parliament, a process that normally takes months.

Downing Street had hoped Brexit passions would have cooled over the Christmas break as warnings mount about the potential impact of no deal, but the early signs are that rebel positions remain firm and the vote is expected to be lost.

The DUP, whose 10 MPs help keep Mrs May in power, has been repeating its objections to the proposed Brexit arrangement over the past 24 hours, despite continuing talks with No 10 to try to resolve the impasse.

EU sources said on Friday they did not know what Mrs May was aiming for with her round of holiday telephone diplomacy. “That is still not clear,” said one diplomat, adding that the “surgical removal” of the backstop demanded by some Eurosceptics was “not remotely possible”.

Meanwhile, the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, told a group of European newspapers that EU leaders could not hope to push Mrs May into organising a second referendum because it would inflame political tensions.

“The extent to which Britain is divided currently is small compared with the tensions a second vote would cause. It would continue to split our nation,” Mr Barclay said, in remarks first reported by Germany’s Die Welt.

A poll of 1,215 Conservative party members found 57 per cent would support a no-deal Brexit if there were a three-way referendum in which Mrs May’s Brexit deal and remaining in the EU were the other two options. In comparison, 25 per cent of voters would back no deal. – Guardian

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