13 December 2018, Belgium, Brussels: Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte (L), British Prime Minister Theresa May (2-L), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (2-R) and Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel (R) arrive at the EU Summit on Brexit at the European Union headquarters. Photo: Thierry Roge/belga/dpa
Dutch PM Mark Rutte (from left), Theresa May, Angela Merkel and Charles Michel, Belgian premier, confer in Brussels on Thursday

British prime ministers once travelled to Brussels summits primed for political battle. After a brutal week of plotting and intrigue in Westminster, Theresa May landed in something more like a haven.

“She has really risen to the occasion. I really admire her. She is an able leader. I admire her tenacity and her resilience,” gushed Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. “She is a great leader,” he added, lest anyone miss the message. 

There is no doubt that some EU leaders are relieved that the UK premier rode out a leadership challenge on Wednesday, potentially sparing them from an even more chaotic Brexit process. 

But, for some European capitals, the worry is that for all her resilience and strengths as a political fire-walker, Mrs May’s chances of building a House of Commons majority for her Brexit deal still look bleak at best. 

With genuine admiration, one EU premier cast her as “the survivor” — but made clear the limits of what the rest of the bloc could do and the importance of solidarity with Dublin over the so-called Irish backstop. “We’ll help her if we can,” he said. “But never if it goes against the Irish.” 

The question of how to respond to Mrs May’s plight — and whether to give her real help — is dividing the EU into two camps. But the differences at this stage seem to be more over tone and tactics than substance.

On one side, a French-led group struggles to hide its impatience with the British and the energy and effort wasted on Brexit. They feel the EU has already gone far enough; some senior European officials are even wary of a second UK referendum over EU membership, fearing it would import an unresolved British political civil war into the union.

“Get it over with, quick,” said one. 

Another camp, including Mr Rutte and Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, is more worried about the eye-rolling, disdain and schadenfreude with which some European capitals have responded to Britain’s troubles. 

If Britain and the EU are to maintain a close relationship after Brexit, the view of this more sympathetic camp is that the bloc should start with speaking in a tone that can allow that to happen. 

On arriving at the summit, Ms Merkel said that, while the EU27 “will be very united and of course make their interests clear,” it would “always be in the spirit that we will have very, very good relations with the UK”.

In another small but significant gesture, Mrs May was allowed in to a free-flowing discussion on Brexit issues, fielding questions from fellow leaders around the table. It contrasts with previous occasions when she was allotted ten minutes before being ushered out so other leaders could discuss Brexit without her. 

Senior EU figures expect Mrs May to go for a Commons vote on her Brexit deal in mid-January — a huge obstacle for her to surmount — and want to make sure they time any support for maximum effect. 

A draft statement prepared for the summit offers non-binding “assurances” on the backstop, which is fervently opposed by both Eurosceptic Conservative MPs and Mrs May’s notional allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. The backstop would retain the UK in a customs union with the EU if there were no other way to prevent a hard border in Ireland.

The draft’s message is that the backstop is undesirable for both sides and would only ever be used for a “short period”, if at all. The priority is a more comprehensive successor agreement to the exit deal that would render the backstop unnecessary.

The dilemma for the EU is what, if anything, to offer next. The co-ordinated refrain across European capitals remains that there will be no re-negotiation of the 585-page binding withdrawal treaty, which outlines the terms of the backstop.

“We cannot reopen a legal agreement, we cannot renegotiate what was negotiated over months,” said Emmanuel Macron, French president. “What we can have is a political discussion.” 

In that spirit, Mrs May has limited herself to seeking more legally binding assurances on the backstop. The EU has often provided such assurances in the past through “interpretive” side deals that leave the original treaty untouched. 

But Brussels negotiators remain sceptical. Senior EU diplomats have noted that Mrs May’s requests over what the assurances should be have changed from meeting to meeting over the past week. 

The EU’s fear is that London may be quietly trying to lull the bloc into a negotiation on the substance of the backstop that it adamantly wants to avoid. 

“I’m suspicious,” said one senior EU government official. “They want to get us to chat, to talk about, address issues step by step, and before you know it we’d have given quite a lot of ground.” 

The view was echoed by Leo Varadkar, Irish prime minister, who said he could not judge the extent of Britain’s request until he “saw things in writing”.

“Some of the suggestions she made, made sense. Others I thought were difficult,” he said after meeting Mrs May for a “long” meeting in Brussels. 

“As the EU we are keen to offer explanations, assurances, clarifications — anything that may assist MPs to understand the agreement to support it,” he added. “But the backstop is not on the table.” 

Given the political arithmetic in Westminster, more pessimistic officials in Brussels say Mrs May may have no option but to go for a fundamental change to the backstop — a demand the 27 maintain would be impossible to meet.

Instead EU diplomats see their main options as providing the UK with reassurances — and possibly time — should the country need an extension of its March 29 exit date.

Dalia Grybauskaite, the Lithuanian president, indicated that leaders will do what they can but cannot compensate for Britain failing to make hard choices of its own. “Brexit Christmas wish,” she wrote on Twitter. “Finally decide what you really want and Santa will deliver.”

Get alerts on Brexit when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article