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Britain's May, EU's Juncker to hold further Brexit talks by end-Feb

Brussels

EUROPEAN Union leader Jean-Claude Juncker and Prime Minister Theresa May agreed on Thursday to hold further talks on Britain's withdrawal from the bloc, after what they described as a "robust" meeting.

EU negotiator Michel Barnier will meet Britain's Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay on Monday in Strasbourg and Mrs May and Mr Juncker themselves will get back together before the end of February, a spokesman said.

In a joint statement issued after Mrs May met Mr Juncker at EU headquarters in Brussels, the pair confirmed that the European Commission president had warned the British premier that the Brexit withdrawal deal cannot be renegotiated.

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But he "expressed his openness to add wording" to a parallel political declaration laying out ambitions for future EU-UK ties if London wants to seek a "more ambitious" closer relationship after Brexit.

Mrs May, however, urged that the withdrawal agreement itself be changed, and reminded Mr Juncker that the British parliament had mandated her to seek "a legally binding change to the terms of the backstop". This is a clause in the withdrawal agreement, signed last November, that would keep Britain in the EU customs union even after a post-Brexit transition period if no way is found to keep the Irish border open.

"The discussion was robust but constructive," the joint statement said.

"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."

If no agreement is reached on the withdrawal deal, which has yet to be approved by either the British or EU parliaments, Britain will crash out of the union with no follow-on trade arrangements on March 29.

A cool handshake for the cameras with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker did little to conceal the tension, just 50 days before Britain could leave the European Union without measures in place to keep trade flowing freely.

Neither spoke, with one reporter shouting to the retreating leaders: "Is this hell, prime minister?" EU summit chair Donald Tusk said on Wednesday that Brexit promoters deserved "a special place in hell" - a blunt display of frustration in Brussels that drew condemnation from many in Britain.

Mrs May will return to parliament next week for a debate on the Brexit negotiations when lawmakers could again try to wrest control of the process from her, but a crunch vote on approving the Brexit deal is likely to come later in the month.

Both Mrs May's Conservative Party and the main opposition Labour Party are formally committed to carrying out Brexit following a 2016 referendum in which voters chose to leave the EU by a margin of 52-48 per cent. But both parties are deeply divided internally over how or even whether to do so.

In a letter to Mrs May released on Wednesday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn set out five conditions for Labour to support a deal. Those include a "permanent and comprehensive" customs union with the bloc, which Mrs May has ruled out.

Mr Corbyn also demanded a close alignment with the single market, "unambiguous agreements" on future security arrangements and commitments on UK participation in EU agencies and funding programmes.

Before arriving in Brussels for talks with EU leaders, Mrs May acknowledged that her task would not be easy. AFP, REUTERS