European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday told British Prime Minister Theresa May that the 27 EU partner countries would not renegotiate their Brexit divorce agreement.
Juncker restated the EU’s position on the agreement during talks between May and EU officials in Brussels.
Juncker spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that Juncker “underlined that the EU 27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromised.”
May who met with EU representatives including Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, had hoped EU representatives would reopen the agreement so she could negotiate changes to the Irish “backstop” protocol ahead of the UK’s planned departure date on March 29.
The Withdrawal Agreement was signed by both parties in November — with the contentious “backstop” agreed to in theory by May’s government a year before that — until the UK Parliament overwhelmingly rejected it.
The talks focused on the stalemate over the border between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is in the United Kingdom.
During a visit to Slovakia on Thursday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she thought it was possible to resolve the Brexit stalemate.
Merkel repeated the European position that the exit agreement would not be renegotiated.
“I believe it is possible to find solutions without reopening the withdrawal agreement,” Merkel said. “That is not on the agenda for us.”
Irish backstop tops agenda
May is seeking changes to the “backstop” protocol in the withdrawal agreement that is designed to guarantee that the Irish border remain open, in order to win parliamentary approval of the Brexit deal. She has struggled, however, to agree with UK politicians on what any changes might look like, beyond calls for a unilateral exit clause for the UK.
Some Brexit supporters fear the backstop could leave Britain tied too closely to the EU, by placing Northern Ireland under slightly different and perhaps indefinite arrangements from the rest of the United Kingdom.
“The UK’s objective is to find a way to guarantee we cannot, and will not, be trapped in the backstop,” a government source told the dpa news agency ahead of Thursday’s talks.
“The prime minister is open to different ways to achieve this, but is clear it must be legally binding and therefore she will require changes to the withdrawal agreement,” the source said, adding that “securing such changes will not be easy.”
While May was in Northern Ireland on Wednesday, Tusk was south of the border in Dublin with Ireland’s Leo Varadkar. There, he again said that Brussels and Ireland were not willing to remove or compromise on the backstop, saying they would not “gamble with peace” on the once conflict-ridden island of Ireland. However, it was later comments about there being a “special place in hell” reserved for leading Brexit campaigners that dominated the headlines in the UK and abroad.
“I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan [for] how to carry it out safely,” Tusk said at the end of his press conference with Varadkar. This prompted Ireland’s Taoseach to say “they’ll give you terrible trouble for this,” in comments quietly picked up by the podium microphones.