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EU's Brexit message to May: clarify, reassure, but not renegotiate
[BRUSSELS] "Clarify?" - yes. "Reassure?" - sure. "Renegotiate?" - no.
The European Union reacted in unison on Tuesday to news that British Prime Minister Theresa May was coming to demand changes to the Brexit deal the sides agreed just two weeks ago after 18 months of painstaking talks.
"There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation," said Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU's executive Commission. "But of course there is room enough to give further clarifications and further interpretations without opening the withdrawal agreement."
Mrs May, who on Monday conceded she lacked votes in her parliament to approve the accord, wants "additional legal reassurances" on the most contentious element of the deal - an emergency fix to avoid extensive border checks between EU-member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland.
The British government's legal advice, which Mrs May was embarrassingly forced to publish after losing a vote in parliament, concluded that the so-called Irish 'backstop' had no mechanism that would let Britain leave it.
Mrs May's critics fear that could force Britain to follow the bloc's rules indefinitely, long after it gives up say over drafting them. It goes to the heart of the Brexit dilemma: how to allow Britain to shake free of EU rules while ensuring it can still trade friction free with the world's biggest market.
EU sources said the bloc was examining the issues raised by the British legal advice to see if they could be addressed, although it was too early to say whether this approach would lead anywhere.
"We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification," said Donald Tusk, the chairman of the EU leaders' summit due to discuss the situation in Brussels this Thursday and Friday.
Germany's EU minister, Michael Roth, called talk of reworking the proposed deal a "fantasy", another in the chorus of EU voices to stress that the Irish fix must stay.
Mrs May was visiting the Hague, Berlin and Brussels on Tuesday, seeking for ways to convince the House of Commons that the backstop would be temporary should it ever be required.
Any clarification could come in the form of a legally-binding declaration of EU leaders giving their interpretation of the draft Brexit treaty, rather than opening it up for renegotiation, which the bloc fears would unravel it.
"This is the most she can hope for," said one EU diplomat. "The question is whether that is enough for her parliament."
On Tuesday, Mrs May met Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who in 2016 won just such an "interpretative intergovernmental declaration" from other EU leaders to help him win parliamentary approval for an agreement between the bloc and Ukraine.
The EU stated at the time that the agreement did not give Ukraine candidate status to join the bloc, a concern that was driving opposition to the deal in the Netherlands back then.
The EU also adopted a similar approach in early 2016 to give Mr May's predecessor David Cameron a special deal intended to help him win the referendum on staying in the bloc.
Rather than open EU treaties, which requires tricky ratification in other member states, leaders issued a decision at a summit setting out some special terms for London on EU immigration and relations with the euro zone.
Mr Cameron declared victory, brought that deal back to London, and lost the referendum anyway.
With time running out to Brexit day due on March 29, the EU is preparing for another calamity.
"We sincerely hope that there can be a majority to ratify the withdrawal agreement but we have to stand ready for a 'no deal' and we are preparing for it," France's EU minister Nathalie Loiseau said in Brussels on Tuesday.