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Theresa May insists EU still open to Brexit deal assurances despite summit setback

·Brussels correspondent
Prime minister Theresa May arriving at the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday (Getty)
Prime minister Theresa May arriving at the European Council summit in Brussels on Thursday (Getty)

Theresa May has insisted that she could win assurances from the EU over the Brexit backstop within days despite suffering a wounding setback at a summit in Brussels.

The prime minister said EU leaders have privately signalled their willingness to deliver the assurances necessary to get the deal through parliament.

“My discussions with colleagues today have shown that further clarifications and discussion following the Council’s conclusion is in fact possible,” she told a press conference.

“There is work still to do and we will be holding talks in coming days about how to achieve the further assurances that the UK parliament needs in order to be able to approve the deal.”

She spoke after being dealt a blow on Thursday when EU leaders reneged on an arrangement to sell the deal to MPs with a politically helpful statement about the backstop.

It was pulled because leaders feared giving May something now would only encourage British MPs demand further concessions before the meaningful vote in January, the Times reported.

A special Brexit summit to deliver written assurances is not though out of the question, Belgian prime minister Charles Michel confirmed.

In a passionate appeal to EU leaders on Thursday, May said the deal could get through the Commons with a new legal clause that proves the Irish border backstop is not a “trap.”

Despite having to call-off the meaningful vote to avoid a humiliating defeat last week, she told them: “There is a majority in my parliament who want to leave with a deal, so with the right assurances this deal can be passed.”

But the European Council ruled out delivering on the legally binding guarantee May has promised her MPs. A crucial part of the meeting’s draft conclusions, promising to “examine whether further assurances can be provided”, was deleted after a three hour debate among EU leaders.

May had said she did not expect an “immediate breakthrough” as she arrived at the summit, but her hopes of securing another special Brexit summit next month also now appear to be fading.

The only assurance May will take back to Britain is a commitment from the EU to “work speedily” on a future trade deal “so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.”

READ MORE: Brexit chaos to continue over Christmas as May warns of no ‘immediate breakthrough

May played-up the significance of that clause on Friday, calling it the “clearest statement we have had yet from the EU” that the backstop will not be used.

EU leaders appear to have made up their minds during a 53-minute question and answer session with May. She asked for their help in changing the “dynamic” in parliament by tackling the “perception” among MPs that the backstop is a “trap from which the UK could not escape.”

And she concluded by with a call for the EU to “hold nothing in reserve” in the effort to conclude a Brexit deal. “We must get this right,” she implored. “Lets work together intensively to get this deal over the line in the best interests of all our people.”

But her failure to table firm proposals to the meeting left even close European allies exasperated. German chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly interrupted May more than once to ask what she really wanted.

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker said the UK was being “nebulous and imprecise” with its demands and called on May to spell out what she wants.

“I do find it uncomfortable that there’s an impression perhaps in the UK that it is for the EU to propose solutions,” he said. It is for the UK leaving the EU and I would have thought that it was rather more for the British government.”

Merkel was among EU leaders who spoke in favour of leaving open the possibility of giving May legal assurances at a further summit in January. Austria, who current hold the European Council presidency, are also sympathetic to May’s situation.

“There’s different opinions on the legal nature of any assurances,” said one senior EU diplomat. “Some are flexible if its more legally binding, some don’t want that. This is something that is just beginning so we need to discuss this internally.”

“It’s natural when you have something on the table for the first time,” he added. “How likely is it that 27 people are of the same opinion?”

But Spain and France are among countries whose tough stance appears to have prevailed. One Spanish diplomat said: “The government refuses any binding solution, even if it doesn’t involve renegotiating the deal. Working on a binding solution means you change the deal through the back door.”

Arriving for the second day of the summit, Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel said leaders held an “honest exchange” with May on Thursday. “We told her that to renegotiate the text will be impossible but if she needs clarification about the backstop [she can give it].”

Belgian prime minister Charle Michel said: “The signs that we were given yesterday were not especially reassuring as to the ability of the parliament to be able to honour the commitment that was given.”

But Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz said leaders still want to “make clear what the backstop means”, adding: “The backstop is an idea for a short period of time and not for the next decades.”