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Deal is not up for renegotiation and time is running out, EU warns May

By Jon Stone

The president of the European Council yesterday ruled out renegotiating Theresa May's Brexit deal and its controversial backstop at an emergency summit in Brussels on Thursday.

Donald Tusk said leaders would discuss the agreement and that they were "ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification".

But he warned that the bloc would use the meeting to discuss no-deal planning "as time is running out".

His comments came after Theresa May said she would go back to Brussels to seek further concessions from the EU after an overwhelmingly negative reception to her deal from MPs.

The European Commission and several key member states also ruled out changing the controversial withdrawal agreement.

"I have decided to call European Council on Brexit on Thursday," Mr Tusk said last night.

"We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification.

"As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a no-deal scenario."

The council president is said to be consulting with EU27 leaders ahead of the summit.

A European Commission spokesperson said: "We have an agreement on the table that was endorsed by the European Council in its Article 50 format on the 25 November.

"As President Juncker said, this deal is the best and only deal possible.

"We will not renegotiate, our position has not changed, and as far as we are concerned, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on March 29, 2019."

EU member states who broke their silence yesterday all said the deal was not up for discussion - a united line they have taken since it was agreed last month.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who has been central to Brexit talks because of the border issue, said in Dublin that there could be no changes to the agreement but suggested clarifications could be made.

"The withdrawal agreement, including the Irish backstop, is the only agreement on the table," he said. "It's not possible to reopen any aspect of that agreement without reopening all aspects."

But he added that "no statement of clarification can contradict what's in the withdrawal agreement".

Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator, blasted the government for delaying the vote.

He said: "I can't follow any more.

"After two years of negotiations, the Tory Government wants to delay the vote. Just keep in mind that we will never let the Irish down. This delay will further aggravate the uncertainty for people and businesses. It's time they make up their mind!"

The Brexit coordinator's comments echo the feelings of many in Brussels who were shocked by the UK's decision to suspend the parliamentary showdown.

Commons speaker John Bercow described the decision as "discourteous".

Meanwhile, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that the withdrawal agreement allowed for "a managed and sensible exit" from the EU by Britain and would not be changed.

Arriving at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels he added: "It deals with a lot of sensitive and a lot of complicated issues and tries to find a middle ground that is good for the United Kingdom, that allows it to leave the European Union in a way that follows through on the referendum vote across the UK.

"But it of course recognises that there are EU concerns as well that need to be accommodated in that regard.

"That is why we are saying that the deal that is there, which is a deal between the UK and the EU, is not going to change, particularly the legal language of the withdrawal treaty.

"I hope people will see it for what it is, which is a fair, balanced document that deals with the complexity of a country the size, and an economy the size of the United Kingdom's leaving a union that it has been part of for 45 years."

Mr Coveney hit out at some of the rhetoric coming from Westminster, saying: "The backstop was never, and is not, an offer from one side to the other."

He added: "Unfortunately a lot of the commentary, which has been emotive and inaccurate in relation to the backstop coming out of Westminster, has created the backstop as something that it's not.

"This is simply an insurance mechanism that kicks in if all else fails to protect peace and stable relations on the island of Ireland and that is the way it should be seen."

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