Brexit talks to restart after Theresa May visits Brussels in last-ditch bid to break deadlock
Prime minister due to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker again before the end of the month
In a joint statement the British government and European Commission said Ms May had had a “robust but constructive” meeting with president Jean-Claude Juncker, and that the pair would meet again before the end of the month.
But the EU again refused to reopen the withdrawal agreement and its controversial backstop – with any negotiations expected to focus on the future relationship between the UK and EU instead.
The two negotiating teams have been formally stood down since the withdrawal agreement was agreed between the two sides last year, with the EU saying it did not anticipate any further meetings. But with MPs in Westminster blocking the ratification of the agreement, officials will begin meeting again.
The EU has been indicating for weeks that it would be happy to re-open discussions about the future relationship – such as whether the UK is in a customs union or aligned with the single market.
Labour has said that it could back Ms May's plan if she softens Brexit and ties the UK closer to Europe economically – an approach that she has been reluctant to take thus far. Such a change of tack would likely enrage many of those within her party who see a soft Brexit as a betrayal of the referendum result.
While she is in the EU capital Ms May is also meeting with European Parliament Brexit coordinator Guy Verhohfstadt and the body's president Antonio Tajani, as well as Donald Tusk of the European Council.
A joint statement by the Commission and the UK government following the first meeting with Mr Juncker on Thursday said the gathering was ”held in a spirit of working together to achieve the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU”.
Theresa May is said to have explained the situation in Westminster to Mr Juncker and raised “various options for dealing with these concerns”.
But Mr Juncker responded by underlining that the EU27 would not reopen the withdrawal agreement – describing it as ”a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the UK, in which both sides have made significant concessions to arrive at a deal”.
He however “expressed his openness to add wording to the political declaration agreed by the EU27 and the UK in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK”, according to the read-out of the meeting.
The statement concluded: “The discussion was robust but constructive. Despite the challenges, the two leaders agreed that their teams should hold talks as to whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council. The Prime Minister and the President will meet again before the end of February to take stock of these discussions.”
Ms May's meeting Mr Tusk comes a day after he caused a row by warning that there was a “special place in hell” for those who promoted Brexit without even a basic plan for how to actually enact it.