Brexit chaos to continue over Christmas as Theresa May warns of no 'immediate breakthrough’

·Brussels correspondent
Embattled prime minister Theresa May arrives at the European Council summit in Brussels (Reuters)
Embattled prime minister Theresa May arrives at the European Council summit in Brussels (Reuters)

The political crisis over the Brexit deal looks set to continue over Christmas after the prime minister played down hopes of securing a quick fix during crunch talks with European leaders today.

Theresa May survived a vote of confidence on Wednesday by promising Conservative MPs to deliver “legal and political assurances” that the UK could not be trapped in the Irish border backstop.

Arriving at the Brussels summit, May said she had heard “loud and clear” the concerns of MPs over the backstop and would tell her continental counterparts “what we need to get this deal over the line.”

“I’m going to be addressing the European Council later and I’ll be showing the legal and political assurances that I believe we need to assuage the concerns that MPs have on this issue,” she said.

“…I recognise the strength of feeling in the House of Commons and thats what I will be putting to colleagues today.”

READ MORE: EU want to give Theresa May a ‘helping hand’ to end Brexit crisis

But she admitted that she did not “expect an immediate breakthrough” on the issue, adding: “What I do hope is that we can start to work as quickly as possible on the assurances that are necessary.”

May’s address to leaders in Brussels looks set to be the start of new talks over what assurances can be given to MPs over the backstop.

One senior EU source predicted the process would conclude with another special EU leaders’ summit in January when written assurances would be given ahead of the postponed meaningful vote.

May’s effort to manage the expectations of her party and the public came as EU leaders suggested it might not be possible on her vow to deliver legal assurances.

Finnish prime minister Juha Sipilä told reporters: “Legally binding will be a little bit difficult but anyway I think that we all want to help.”

Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte also called a legal assurance “difficult” and said leaders would instead today seek to “demystify” the backstop.

Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, who met one-to-one with May, said she had put new ideas on the table. “Some of the suggestions she made sense, others I thought were difficult,” he said.

Asked whether he was willing to risk a no deal Brexit by refusing to bend over the backstop, he pointed out it was “within the gift of the UK to take no deal off the table.”

“It’s possible, if the UK wishes, to revoke Article 50, or if that’s a step too far, to seek an extension of Article so that the UK parliament has more time to come together and decide what they would like the outcome to be,” he said.

After greeting May to the summit with three kisses, Luxembourg prime minister Xavier Bettel told her “we are ready to help”. But on the backstop he told reporters: “We can speak about interpretations but I don’t want to change the deal we worked on for the last two years.”

Asked whether he would prefer the UK to remain in the EU, Bettel pointed to the pin badge of crossed EU and UK flags on his chest and said: “Look what I’m wearing, I still believe.”

“I would prefer a second referendum than no deal,” he added.

European leaders are likely to publish a joint statement from the summit clarifying that it is not their intention to use the backstop, but May is seeking a legally binding document.

While the prime minister faces a challenge in fulfilling her pledges to MPs over the backstop, she has confirmed she will honour a commitment to stand down before the next scheduled election in 2022.

READ MORE: Juncker warns May there is ‘no room whatsoever’ to change Brexit deal

She said: “In my heart I would love to be able to lead the Conservative party into the next general election but I think it is right that the party feels it would prefer to go into that election with a new leader.”

Asked whether she would step down after Brexit, she replied: “People try to talk about dates but what I’m clear about is the next general election is in 2022 and it’s right that another party leader takes us into that general election.

“My focus now is on ensuring I can get those assurances that we need to get this deal over the line because I genuinely believe it’s in the best interest of both sides.”

The Dutch prime minister said he had the “highest admiration” for May winning Wednesday’s vote of confidence and paid tribute to the “tenacity” and “resilience” she had shown over Brexit.

May is not the only leader present whose domestic power is waning. German chancellor Angela Merkel will step down shortly, French president Emmanuel Macron and Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki are facing no confidence votes and the Belgian prime minister is now leading a minority government.