Summit shows that EU cannot solve May’s parliamentary problem
May seized on the conclusions which stated that the backstop would be temporary
British Prime Minister Theresa May will make a statement to parliament about the summit on Monday and take questions from MPs about the future of her Brexit deal. Photograph: John Thys / AFP/Getty Images
Theresa May knew that there would be no breakthrough in Brussels this week, but the sharpness of the rebuff she received from the other 27 EU leaders was a shock. Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s contemptuous tone at a midnight press conference after Thursday’s session so offended the prime minister that she confronted him about it on Friday morning.
The other leaders were more careful with their words, but they all sent the same message: don’t come looking for further concessions on the backstop until you are sure they will be enough to deliver a majority for the Brexit deal in the House of Commons. During an hour-long question and answer session with May on Thursday evening, Angela Merkel was reported to have displayed irritation as she pressed the prime minister on what was needed to get the deal through Parliament.
May on Friday seized on the official conclusions which stated that the backstop would be temporary and promised that the EU would work to conclude a trade deal with Britain as quickly as possible to ensure that the backstop would not last long. The EU leaders have left the door open to further reassurances over the next few weeks but as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointed out, no new legal text can “contradict or render inoperable” anything in the withdrawal agreement.
May will make a statement to parliament about the summit on Monday and take questions from MPs about the future of her Brexit deal. She will repeat that she will bring the deal before the House of Commons for a vote before January 21st and after she has won the reassurance MPs need on the backstop.
Her problem is that nothing that is available within the parameters set out by EU leaders in Brussels this week will be sufficient to persuade the DUP and dozens of Conservative Brexiteers to support the Brexit deal. So when the prime minister puts the deal before MPs next month they will almost certainly reject it, just as they would have if they had voted on it this week.
What the summit highlighted was the stark reality that the EU cannot solve May’s parliamentary problem, which is that she heads a minority government that is itself divided over Brexit. If there is no parliamentary majority for her Brexit deal, she will have to lead Britain into a potentially catastrophic no-deal Brexit or find a plan that can unlock a cross-party majority in the House of Commons.
The proposal most likely to do that is a second referendum, which could also be the only way she can hold the Conservative party together.