Theresa May has agreed with EU leaders to reopen talks immediately to resolve the Brexit impasse, as she tries to agree a revised exit deal to present to parliament by early March.
Mrs May held what both sides called “robust but constructive” talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president; they agreed to restart negotiations at an official level and to meet again before the end of February to review progress.
Mr Juncker and Donald Tusk, European Council president, said the EU would welcome a UK decision to sign up to a permanent customs union with Brussels as a way of ending the stand-off, the proposal backed by Jeremy Corbyn, leader of Britain’s opposition Labour party.
But the prime minister is refusing to go down that route, fearing it would tear her Conservative party apart. “She continues to believe an independent trade policy is one of the principal advantages of Brexit,” her spokesman said.
One possible venue for the next crucial round of May-Juncker talks would be on the margins of an EU-Arab League summit meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on February 24-25.
Mrs May’s aides said that the prime minister had not yet confirmed her attendance at the meeting, but it would represent an opportunity to meet Mr Juncker and other European leaders at a pivotal moment in the talks.
If the two sides can agree some form of legally binding change to the backstop — the insurance policy against a border contained in the draft exit treaty — Mrs May could present a tweaked deal to MPs for a second “meaningful vote”. She lost the first such vote last month by 230 votes.
After a series of meetings with EU leaders in Brussels, Mrs May admitted it would not be “easy” to salvage her deal but that she would be “negotiating hard” over the coming days.
Mr Tusk tweeted after his meeting with Mrs May that there was “still no breakthrough in sight. Talks will continue”.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, will meet Stephen Barclay, the UK’s Brexit secretary, in Strasbourg next week, while Mrs May meets Irish premier Leo Varadkar in Dublin on Friday.
Mr Juncker told Mrs May the 585-page draft withdrawal treaty was not open for renegotiation after the prime minister “raised various options” for seeking alternative arrangements over the backstop, which Brexiters fear could “trap” the UK indefinitely in a customs union with Brussels.
An EU official said one of the options touted by the prime minister was for the EU to “describe” a way in which the backstop would never have to come into force but without setting a hard time limit or exit mechanism — two options that have been ruled out by the other member states.
The prime minister will give a progress report to MPs on February 13, when Tory Eurosceptics will urge her to scrap the backstop altogether.
Mr Tusk complicated Mrs May’s attempts to placate Tory Brexiters when he said on Wednesday that there was “a special place in hell” for leading Eurosceptics who did not have a clear plan for Brexit.
His outburst reflected his “genuine, deep frustration with the mess that we are in”, according to one EU official. Mrs May said after her meetings that the comment was “not helpful and caused widespread dismay in the UK”.
But the PM’s attempt to win support at Westminster for a tweaked deal has been bolstered in recent days by a more conciliatory tone from Labour and the Democratic Unionist party.
Labour leader Mr Corbyn wrote to Mrs May on Wednesday offering talks to find “a sensible agreement that can win the support of parliament and bring the country together”. The prime minister will write a letter responding to Mr Corbyn on Friday.
After meeting Mrs May, Guy Verhofstadt, the EU parliament’s Brexit chief, said he “welcomed” Labour’s offer and warned Mrs May the EU would not give her concessions if she could only marshal a wafer-thin majority of “six or seven” MPs.
At his meeting with Mrs May, the commission chief said the bloc could tweak the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement “to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the EU and the UK”.
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