Brexit: May gets small comfort in Brussels, even smaller back home

Some senior EU figures believe PM will struggle to get any deal through Commons

Theresa May returned to London on Friday after three days in Brussels that brought her no closer to a Brexit deal and left many of her own MPs at Westminster unhappier than ever.

There was some comfort for the prime minister from her fellow EU leaders, who didn’t rule out convening a special summit next month if negotiations make sudden progress. The leaders also decided not to hold a special no-deal summit and to avoid big public announcements about their own preparations for a no-deal Brexit, which could be viewed as provocative or threatening in London.

Downing Street seized on Angela Merkel's reported comments at a dinner of the 27 remaining member states on Wednesday evening when she suggested that the EU and Ireland should show more flexibility over the backstop. Was this the long-awaited intervention by the EU's "grown-ups" to instruct Michel Barnier to make more concessions over the backstop?

Not if you listen to Emmanuel Macron, who said it was up to Britain to propose a solution for the backstop.


“The EU has already demonstrated our flexibility, but there are limits. We cannot jeopardise the single market, the four fundamental liberties, or Ireland. It is no longer a technical issue but one of the political capacity of the UK to find a solution,” he said.

Praise for Barnier

The EU leaders not only left Barnier’s mandate unchanged but praised his handling of the negotiations, proposing no change of direction. May’s fellow leaders are conscious of her limited room for manoeuvre at Westminster and they believe that no other potential prime minister would have a better chance of concluding a deal on Brexit.

Some senior EU figures are convinced, however, that there is no Brexit deal that will be able to command a majority in the House of Commons, leaving a no-deal Brexit as the most likely outcome.

The proposal to extend the transition period by up to a year has angered Conservatives of all stripes and renewed speculation about May’s leadership. Her next big test comes with the budget later this month and with Brexit still unresolved, she can probably rely on the support of the DUP to get it through the Commons.

In the meantime, there is little expectation of progress in the negotiations, making mid-December the earliest likely moment to conclude a Brexit deal. After, the prime minister will face the formidable challenge of constructing a parliamentary majority behind whatever she agrees with the EU.