The EU stuck to its line as its leaders gathered, alongside the U.K. prime minister, at the Red Sea coastal resort of Sharm el-Sheikh for an inaugural EU summit with Arab country leaders Sunday night.
European Council chief Donald Tusk warned May Sunday afternoon that EU leaders will not offer concessions on the Brexit divorce agreement until she holds another vote in the House of Commons, and proves she has majority support for specific tweaks to the current Brexit deal.
Tusk’s position, relayed to the prime minister in a 30-minute private talk, came after May said she would delay the next parliament vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement until March 12. A senior EU source confirmed May reiterated this position in the meeting with Tusk.
May’s delay sparked fury in the U.K., with business leaders and opposition figures attacking the prime minister for taking Britain closer and closer to the cliff edge of no deal on March 29. Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer dubbed it the “height of irresponsibility.”
May’s decision also puts added focus on MPs pushing to force the government to apply for an extension to Article 50 — delaying Brexit — if May has not secured changes to the current Brexit deal by March 13.
Tusk’s intervention Sunday night adds to the immediate difficulty of the prime minister’s position, but provides a glimmer of hope.
The European Council president “recalled the need for EU27 to have clarity that a proposal for the way forward can command a majority in the U.K.” before EU leaders would revisit the issue at the next European Council meeting, according to a senior EU source with knowledge of the meeting.
The message: The ball is in the U.K.’s court alone, but EU leaders may revisit the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement if May can narrow her demands to a single concrete proposal, backed by parliament.
But it also takes Brexit down to the wire: It means EU leaders would not sign off any changes until the next European Council summit in Brussels on March 21-22.
Even then, a Brexit delay may be required to implement any change agreed at the March EU leaders’ meeting.
After arriving in Sharm el-Sheikh Sunday, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar floated the prospect of an extension of Article 50 and a new “mechanism” to reassure MPs that the contentious so-called Irish backstop — meant to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland — is not a permanent settlement, as long as it does not “contradict the legal reality, or the spirit of what’s been agreed” in the original Withdrawal Agreement signed in November.
“The March 29 deadline is self-imposed, nobody in Ireland or the EU is threatening no deal,” Varadkar said. “This is a situation the United Kingdom has created for itself. We’re not playing chicken, we’re not playing poker. We’re just standing by our position.”
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, also speaking at Sharm el-Sheikh, echoed support for a Brexit delay, if there is no parliamentary majority for a deal by mid-March.
The prime minister’s latest move to delay the U.K.’s Brexit reckoning kicked off what her aides admit will be a particularly brutal — “attritional” — week for No. 10 Downing Street.
May’s next crucial meeting is with German Chancellor Angela Merkel early Monday morning. On Tuesday, she will then update MPs on her quest to win changes to the legally binding assurances that the Irish backstop cannot be used to keep Britain indefinitely in the EU’s customs union.
Twenty-four hours later, the big Commons showdown will take place, with MPs attempting to force the government to apply for a delay to Britain’s withdrawal from the EU should a negotiated exit prove impossible to pass the House of Commons before March 29.
Under a plan drawn up by Oliver Letwin, Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles, three senior MPs, the prime minister will have until March 13 to get parliament’s assent for a Brexit divorce agreement or be forced by law to apply for an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period.
Already three Cabinet ministers — David Gauke, Amber Rudd and Greg Clark — warned they are willing to vote against the government to support the amendment.
Critics say the amendment would remove the U.K. government’s leverage in the final negotiations.
The amendment authors say they seek to remove the impending danger of a no-deal crashout.
By promising to return to the House of Commons for another “meaningful vote” by the day before, March 12, the prime minister hopes to see off the threatened parliamentary rebellion to remove no deal as a credible option.
However, responding to the prime minister’s announcement of the delayed vote, Boles said MPs could now approve his proposal “knowing it does nothing to interfere with the PM’s negotiations between now and 12th March. If the PM secures a deal and a Commons majority before 13th March, the clauses mandating an extension to A50 will never be activated.”
On board the plane to Egypt, May warned MPs that delaying Brexit achieved nothing.
“We still have it within our grasp to leave the European Union on March 29,” she said. “Extending Article 50 doesn’t solve the problem; it just defers the decision.”