The Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is the only deal on the table between the EU and the UK and is not open to renegotiation, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar insisted this week in Dublin ahead of the summit of EU leaders in Brussels.
His comments came as Mrs May headed for Brussels to seek further concessions on the already agreed “backstop” – no customs or regulatory divergence between Ireland and Northern Ireland – intended to prevent the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland.
But European Council President Donald Tusk warned: “We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a ‘no deal’ scenario.”
Mr Tusk’s and Mr Varadkar’s comments came as Theresa May pulled the decisive House of Commons vote on her Brexit deal. She had been expected to suffer yet another humiliating defeat at the hands of both Brexit and Remain MPs.
The British Prime Minister chose to avoid personal and party humiliation and opted for continued uncertainty – the effects of which could be seen in sterling’s falling value – by taking the Commons’ “meaningful vote” off the table – presumably until some unspecified date.
Many MPs, on both sides of the Brexit debate, expressed fears she was running the clock down until they have to make a last-minute choice between her deal and ‘no deal’ – for which there is no Commons majority.
Mrs May’s attempt to ‘kick the can down the road’ came as the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg ruled this week that the UK is free to withdraw Article 50 without permission from other EU countries and retain the special concessions it already enjoys.
The ECJ ruled that if the UK revoked Article 50 following “democratic process” and stopped Brexit it would remain in the EU as a member state with all of its existing concessions and benefits.
— EU Court of Justice (@EUCourtPress) December 10, 2018
The ECJ said: “The full court has ruled that, when a member state has notified the European Council of its intention to withdraw from the European Union, as the UK has done, that member state is free to revoke unilaterally that notification.
“That possibility exists for as long as a withdrawal agreement concluded between the EU and that member state has not entered into force or, if no such agreement has been concluded, for as long as the two-year period from the date of the notification of the intention to withdraw from the EU, and any possible extension, has not expired.”
The full extent of Mrs May’s weakness in the Commons was made clear by the DUP, whose 10 votes she has been relying upon to prop up her government.
The leader of the DUP in the House of Commons, Nigel Dodds confirmed the Prime Minister’s deal would have been “overwhelmingly defeated”.
Mr Dodds’ party leader Arlene Foster said the cancelled vote “sums up the chaotic nature of the government’s approach to these negotiations”.
She demanded Mrs May drop the backstop arrangement altogether: “The prime minister was warned that this deal would not work but did not listen.
“The fundamentally-flawed withdrawal agreement would have undermined our United Kingdom economy and the Union itself.
“The backstop would have left Northern Ireland trapped as a hostage to the European Union. The prime minister must get rid of the backstop. It is not needed. No one is building a ‘hard border’.”
Mrs May said she believed there was “a majority to be won” in the Commons on her deal if she is able to “secure additional reassurance” on the backstop, and that this would be her focus over the coming days.
But she insisted: “There is no deal available that does not include the backstop.”
Mrs May, whose government does not have a Commons majority, needs the votes of 318 MPs, including the 10 DUP MPs to get any legislation through.
To date, there has been no Brexit proposal that can command the support of a majority of MPs.
Mrs May has already had telephone conversations with European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and German Chancellor Angela Merkel to see if there is any political mileage in doing as her MPs demanded and returning to Brussels to ‘renegotiate’ – or at least get something that could be sold to her own hardliners as a concession – on the Northern Ireland backstop.
Her chief Brexit negotiator Ollie Robbins arrived in Brussels on Monday and Mrs May was expected to head to the traditional end of year summit of EU Heads of Government in Brussels on Thursday and Friday
Education minister Nadhim Zahawi said Theresa May had “listened to colleagues and will head to Brussels to push back on the backstop”.
Earlier this week Mrs May challenged her own MPs, and some on the Opposition benches by asking: “Does this House want to deliver Brexit? And if it does, does it want to do so through reaching an agreement with the EU?
“If the answer is ‘yes’, and I believe that is the answer of the majority of this House, then we all have to ask ourselves whether we are prepared to make a compromise because there will be no enduring and successful Brexit without some compromise on both sides of the debate.
“Many of the most controversial aspects of this deal – including the backstop – are simply inescapable facts of having a negotiated Brexit.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – who has made overtures to the DUP, insisting he can negotiate a Withdrawal Agreement without a backstop and secure all of the benefits of EU membership and be outside the EU at the same times – said Mrs May her government had “lost control of events and is in complete disarray”.
“This is a bad deal for Britain, a bad deal for our economy and a bad deal for our democracy. Our country deserves better than this,” he said.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged Mr Corbyn as leader of the Opposition to table a motion of no confidence in the government which she said her party’s MPs – the third largest parliamentary group in the Commons – would support.
So @jeremycorbyn – if Labour, as official opposition, lodges motion of no confidence in this incompetent government tomorrow, @theSNP will support & we can then work together to give people the chance to stop Brexit in another vote. This shambles can’t go on – so how about it?
— Nicola Sturgeon (@NicolaSturgeon) December 10, 2018
The Taoiseach Mr Varadkar, who at the weekend did not rule out some flexibility on clarifications and assurances but nothing substantive, insisted this week that to re-open one aspect of the deal would mean opening the entire deal for re-negotiation, and that was not possible.
He said Mrs May’s own ‘red lines’ had brought the UK, EU and Ireland to where they are now.
“What I can say is that the withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop, is the only agreement on the table.
“It took over a year and a half to negotiate, it has the support of 28 governments, it is not possible to re-open any aspect of that agreement without opening all aspects,” he said.
He said he had spoken to Mrs May by telephone on Sunday to “update me on the progress she was making in seeking to get ratification of the withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons and also how we think ahead as to how we move ahead.”
Ireland and the EU had already made many concessions to the UK and it is not possible to make any more, he said.
“A lot of concessions have been made along the way. Most recently we agreed there would be a review clause.
“No one should ever forget how we got to this point, the UK decided to leave the EU.
“The UK Government decided to take lots of options off the table whether it was staying in the Customs Union or the Single Market or in relation to a Northern Ireland specific backstop.
“The reason we ended up in the situation we are in is because of (Mrs May’s) red lines.
“We have already offered a lot of concessions. We ended up with the backstop because of all of the red lines that the UK laid down.
“I have no difficulty with statements which clarify what is in the Withdrawal Agreement – but no statement can contradict what is in the withdrawal agreement.”
Tanaiste Simon Coveney was equally unambiguous about the Irish government’s position: “The deal is the deal. It’s taken two years to put together. It’s a fair deal for both sides.
“It protects, from an Irish perspective and from a British perspective, peaceful relationships on the island of Ireland.
“The backstop was never and is not an offer from one side to the other.
“It was a negotiated solution that both sides signed up to.”