UK prime minister Theresa May has suffered a humiliating setback. A Brussels summit aimed at saving her Brexit deal with the EU has instead left her negotiating strategy in tatters and her premiership in dire trouble.
Here are six takeaways from a night of diplomacy when the EU sought to force the pace of Brexit politics in Westminster.
The EU is rejecting May’s request for a formal negotiation (for now)
When making her pitch to EU leaders, Mrs May pleaded with them to “let our teams get together” to discuss improvements to her Brexit deal. On Thursday night the response was a clear-cut No. By Friday morning, some face-saving measures were worked up for Mrs May.
Had EU leaders signed off on draft summit conclusions, Brussels negotiators would have started working on “further reassurances” aimed at rescuing the deal from defeat in Britain’s parliament.
Instead, the authorisation for talks was struck from the text by leaders. German chancellor Angela Merkel and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte spoke in favour of allowing a process of limited discussions. But the mood in the summit room was against anything substantial. Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, said the EU would take on “no new obligations”.
This rebuff was more than just a negotiating tactic. The prospect of another emergency Brexit summit in January was unpopular in the room, to put it mildly. “They hated the idea,” said one senior EU official.
But by Friday morning, some leaders had second thoughts after seeing the criticism directed at Mrs May. A compromise was worked up during a morning huddle, which included Mr Rutte, Ms Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, the French president. This leaves open the possibility for Mrs May to come back with more proposals for “reassurances”, as long as they do not contradict the draft Brexit agreement.
May’s pitch was all too clear
Mr Juncker accused the British prime minister of making “nebulous” requests. Other senior EU diplomats complained that what they depicted as Mrs May’s at times incoherent demands squandered what goodwill there was for her at the start of Thursday.
But the biggest problem may have been too much clarity about what was needed, rather than too little.
EU leaders endorsed the Brexit deal only a fortnight ago. During an hour-long exchange with EU leaders on Thursday night, Mrs May said she still supported that package and did not want to renegotiate to change its terms.
Yet she went on to suggest an upgraded legal status for the non-binding declaration on future UK-EU relations and binding clarifications on the backstop to prevent a hard border with Ireland — including, in effect, a one-year time limit on it ever being in force.
Mrs May told the room her priority was an “absolute determination” by the EU to complete a trade deal within a year of the end of Britain’s transition period, which can be extended to December 2022 at the latest.
Such a commitment to a speedy trade deal would be essential to show that the backstop, which ties Northern Ireland and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain to the EU’s customs and single market rules, would only ever be used temporarily. If it can provide an alternative means of avoiding a hard Irish border, a trade deal would supersede the backstop.
Once Mrs May had left the room, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned leaders that her suggestions were not clarifications, but old UK negotiating demands that were being recycled.
“Part of the frustration stems from the fact we’ve talked about this all before,” said one senior EU diplomat. “We thought we settled them in the deal.”
EU leaders concluded that Mrs May needed not just a few reassurances but fundamental changes to the withdrawal treaty, the agreement they had declared they would not touch.
EU leaders have little confidence the deal will pass
Ms Merkel and other leaders put a simple question to Mrs May: would the clarifications be enough to win a vote?
Her answers left the EU27 leaders unconvinced. And as has happened at several stages of the Brexit negotiation, the summit room inclined towards a tougher approach with London rather than offering more concessions.
Mrs May’s answers made clear that adding some gloss to the Brexit package would not be enough. One diplomat said “not one person in the room” had confidence the deal would be passed at the first attempt.
And if, despite its past insistence, the EU agreed to reopen the package, what would be left if it were voted down? One ambassador at the summit said concessions would be “gobbled up” before the UK returned for more.
The EU wants the UK to work out what will allow approval
Lars Lokke Rasmussen, the Danish prime minister, was blunt. “Someday, somebody needs to say it. And you have to say — openly,” he said. “It is necessary that you get some homework done in the British parliament.”
Mr Rasmussen went on to cite the Danish example of 1992, when the Maastricht treaty was voted down in a referendum. Like Britain, Copenhagen sought legally binding clarifications that would not change the original treaty. But unlike Britain, it came to Brussels with a package of requests that the EU considered realistic and which had full cross-party support.
By contrast, the EU felt that Mrs May’s demands were a gamble by one prime minister, rather than a carefully worked out compromise from the House of Commons.
Beware the Irish on a summit morning
Mrs May has had three particularly bad summits since the start of the Brexit negotiations: one in Gothenburg in November 2017, one in Salzburg in September 2018, and Thursday’s meeting in Brussels. The common thread: a terrible morning meeting with Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister.
Diplomats describe the relationship between Mrs May and the Taoiseach as painfully awkward. Even without the intense pressure of Brexit, their shared introversion, inflexibility and extraordinary ability to sustain silences would make for a tricky relationship.
When Mrs May unveiled her proposals to Mr Varadkar on Thursday, the gulf in positions was immediately clear. The Irish prime minister warned her — and other EU leaders — that the requests would fundamentally change the nature of the backstop for Northern Ireland.
Dublin has long worried about leaving the Northern Ireland question to the end of a negotiation, when the EU’s desire to do a deal may put huge pressure on Mr Varadkar to give ground. He urged other EU leaders to stand by the backstop and not to let Ireland “be used as leverage by either side”. So far, the EU27 common stance behind Ireland is holding.
The EU is uncomfortable about playing for time
European leaders realise Mrs May has delayed the House of Commons vote on the Brexit package largely because of the risk of being ousted after a big parliamentary defeat.
But they also perceive that Mrs May is seeking to use time against her opponents, pushing MPs closer to the March 29 precipice, when Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, so that the vote becomes a clearer choice between her deal and no deal.
The problem is that the strategy of playing for time and sharpening choices is awkward for EU leaders, too. They would prefer a degree of clarity in London over the Brexit package and Britain’s intentions — and sooner rather than later.