BRUSSELS — British Prime Minister Theresa May and EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker sparred on Thursday during “robust” talks on the U.K.'s Brexit plans, and agreed to hold more negotiations until the end of the month — a process that looks set to push the sealing of any deal to within a month of Britain's scheduled departure.
The two leaders agreed to meet for more talks “before the end of February to take stock of these discussions,” a joint statement said. Two years ago, May set Brexit day as March 29 — and originally plans were to have a deal in place six months ahead of time.
Both sides still fundamentally disagree on whether a draft legal withdrawal agreement could be changed to take the latest British objections into account, greatly reducing the chances of a quick breakthrough.
“The EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, which represents a carefully balanced compromise between the European Union and the U.K., in which both sides have made significant concessions,” the joint statement said.
The simmering tension was evident in the leaders’ body language as they met in a stiff ceremony.
Instead of his usual jovial kisses, Juncker held out his hand for May to shake and quickly ushered her off into his offices. One reporter shouted at her: “Is this hell, prime minister?”
It was a reference to comments by European Council President Donald Tusk, who exacerbated the frosty climate on Wednesday by wondering aloud what “special place in hell” might be reserved for those who backed Brexit with no idea of how to deliver it.
Highlighting the sensitivities, a public welcome appearance on camera between May and Tusk was cancelled hours before the encounter.
U.K. officials said May's primary concern was not to be “trapped” into a system that could see Britain linked to the EU in a customs union for an indefinite time.
Britain's Parliament voted down May's Brexit deal last month, largely because of concerns about a provision for the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
Thursday's statement said that May “raised various options for dealing with these concerns in the context of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Many pro-Brexit British lawmakers say they won't vote for the withdrawal agreement unless the backstop is removed.
May is looking for changes in the 585-page legally-binding withdrawal agreement to achieve that, something which the 27 other EU leaders continue to vehemently oppose.
Juncker and the other EU leaders have agreed to look for a compromise in a political text accompanying the withdrawal agreement, but not in the legal document itself.
In London, there was significant momentum from the opposition with the Labour Party making perhaps its biggest move in months.
Party leader Jeremy Corbyn dangled a possible way out of the impasse, saying his left-wing party could support a Brexit deal if May committed to seeking a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves, including a commitment to maintain roughly equivalent standards in areas such as the environment and workers’ rights.
Corbyn's key demand, set out in a letter to May, is permanent British membership in a customs union with the EU. May has repeatedly ruled that out, but it would solve the problem of the backstop, by making customs checks on the Irish border unnecessary.
It is the firmest signal yet that Labour lawmakers might be willing to vote for a Brexit deal in Parliament. But the party — like May's Conservatives — is divided. Corbyn's position disappointed some Labour Party legislators who had hoped he would back calls for a second referendum on whether to leave the EU.
- As Brexit looms, UK 'preppers' stock up and hunker down
- United Kingdom's Theresa May faces Parliament after European Union grants Brexit extension
- UK's Theresa May to ask EU for Brexit delay; long extension expected
- European Union urges Brexit 'flextension' as United Kingdom pursues shorter delay
- Theresa May to meet UK opposition leader for Brexit compromise talks
- EU negotiator Michel Barnier says chaotic Brexit becomes ever more likely
- Third time lucky? UK lawmakers hold new vote on Brexit deal
- Germany, France say Brexit extension needs strings attached
- UK lawmakers set for another big Brexit vote
- EU plans for chaotic Brexit as UK readies for no-deal vote
- UK Parliament rejects prime minister's Brexit deal
- UK prime minister Theresa May set to put her EU divorce deal to the test
- Produce growers in sunny south Spain brace for Brexit pain
- UK's Theresa May asks a wary EU to delay Brexit until June 30
- Brexit could spell economic peril for parts of the European Union
- UK's Theresa May seeks changes to Brexit deal as EU stands firm
- Sick and elderly worry Brexit will hurt access to meds
- AP Explains: Brexit awakens old fears in Northern Ireland
- Theresa May's foes gather as Britain's Brexit stalemate drags on
- May battles to keep Brexit on track after no-confidence win
- UK government faces no-confidence vote after Brexit defeat
- UK lawmakers prepare to deliver verdict on EU divorce deal
- UK leader Theresa May mounts last-ditch bid to win Brexit deal backing
- UK leader Theresa May seeks EU lifeline after surviving confidence vote
- UK's Theresa May lobbies EU leaders in fight to save Brexit deal
- Top EU court rules UK can change mind over Brexit
- UK prime minister Theresa May appeals to public on Brexit, braces for more blows
- EU divorce deal in peril after two UK Cabinet ministers quit
- UK leader Theresa May appoints staunchly pro-Brexit lawmaker to key post
- UK, EU claim Brexit breakthrough; eye talks on future ties
- EU draft guidelines soften line on future UK relationship
- Poles face post-Brexit Europe with confusion and fear
- Britain's prime minister to seek early election on June 8
- May's UK election gamble backfires as Tories lose majority
- It's over: Britain files for divorce from the European Union
- Dire straits: Gibraltar faces Brexit chaos against its will
- Europe 2017: Brexit, far-right surging, Russian threat
- Obama speaks in post-Brexit summit of NATO nations
- Why the ‘Brexit’ passed; can anything be done to save the European Union?
- Britain votes to leave European Union in shocking, unprecedented move
- Stocks, commodities crash as investors shocked by ‘Brexit’
- ‘Brexit’ approval taking toll as prime minister Cameron announces resignation
- Britain votes to exit European Union; pound plunges
- Markets, bookies see no ‘Brexit’ of European Union
- British politicians make final appeals for, against ‘Brexit’ in EU vote campaigns
- Assassination of parliament member puts ‘Brexit’ on back burner
- ‘Brexit’ from European Union might be messy divorce