Theresa May has vowed to deliver Brexit on time on March 29, after agreeing a fresh round of talks to try to get her Withdrawal Agreement over the line.
Mrs May described discussions with EU leaders in Brussels as “robust but constructive” and insisted she was determined to “negotiate hard” over the coming days to secure legally-binding changes to the Agreement which will render it acceptable to Parliament.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier will meet next Monday, while Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker will have another meeting before the end of the month to take stock of the situation.
But European Council president Donald Tusk poured cold water on any expectation of an imminent end to the current impasse, saying there was “no breakthrough in sight”.
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) February 7, 2019
Mrs May took Mr Tusk to task for his comment on Wednesday that a “special place in hell” was reserved for those who promoted Brexit with no plan to deliver it.
She told the council president his remark was “not helpful and caused widespread dismay in the United Kingdom”.
The PM’s meetings with Mr Juncker, Mr Tusk, Mr Barnier and senior representatives of the European Parliament took place as Jeremy Corbyn offered Labour’s help to secure a Norway-style Brexit.
In an initiative which sparked howls of outrage among Labour Remainers, Mr Corbyn wrote to Mrs May setting out five demands, including joining a customs union, that would need to be met for his party to back the Government.
Meanwhile, Bank of England governor Mark Carney issued a stark warning of the mounting risk of a recession in the event of the “negative shock” of a no-deal Brexit.
With 50 days to go to the scheduled date of Brexit, Mr Carney said uncertainty about the outcome of negotiations was “weighing more heavily” on business activity, as he slashed growth forecasts to their weakest for 10 years.
In talks with the PM, Mr Juncker underlined that the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out last November would not be redrawn, but held open the possibility of adding “more ambitious” wording to a document setting out plans for the future relationship.
And European Parliament president Antonio Tajani said: “We are open to being more ambitious on our future relations, including looking at the Irish situation again if the UK’s red lines change.”
The Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt raised concerns among eurosceptics in the UK by saying that Mrs May had assured him that “there will be a backstop” in any final deal.
The controversial backstop, which offers an insurance policy to avoid a hard Irish border after Brexit, is the biggest obstacle to securing parliamentary backing for Mrs May’s deal. MPs last week backed an amendment calling for it to be “replaced” with alternative arrangements.
A joint statement issued after talks between Mrs May and Mr Juncker 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.”
Mrs May set out MPs’ demands for a “legally binding change to the terms of the backstop”, while Mr Juncker “underlined that the EU27 will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement”.
Theresa May is greeted by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker as she arrives in Brussels for crunch Brexit talks – her first visit since her deal was defeated by the Commons pic.twitter.com/jo2nVWuKJX
— Harriet Line (@HarriLine) February 7, 2019
But he “expressed his openness to add wording to the Political Declaration” to be “more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship”.
The PM later said: “I have set out very clearly the position from Parliament that we must have legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement in order to deal with Parliament’s concerns over the backstop.
“What I see and hear from leaders is a desire for us to work together to ensure that we can deliver the UK leaving the European Union with a deal.
“My work is to deliver Brexit, to deliver it on time and I am going to be negotiating hard in the coming days to do just that.”
Mrs May was offered a chink of light by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who again ruled out reopening the Withdrawal Agreement, but said she believed “solutions” could be found.
Speaking during a visit to Slovakia, Mrs Merkel said: “I think we can find solutions without reopening the Withdrawal Agreement. That is not on the agenda for us.”
In diplomatic statements, the description “robust” often indicates a heated row.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said that the word was “something that both sides agreed was an accurate way to describe the tonality of the meeting”.
As Mrs May arrived in Brussels a protester waving a placard reading “Don’t crash out” leaped in front of the PM’s convoy as it arrived at the Commission’s Berlaymont HQ but was quickly whisked away.
The possibility of a “disruptive” Brexit is causing economic uncertainty in the EU, commission vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis said, as Brussels revealed its latest economic forecast.
The EU economy is expected to grow 1.5% in 2019, with the UK’s forecast at 1.3% – although this is a “purely technical assumption” based on a status quo relationship with Brussels.
Mr Dombrovskis said: “The possibility of a disruptive Brexit creates additional uncertainty.”
Meanwhile, the Daily Telegraph reported that Mrs May is seeking to delay another Commons “meaningful vote” on the Government’s Brexit stance until the end of February – just a month before the UK is scheduled to quit the EU on March 29.