Belfast Telegraph

EU boss vows 'every effort' to help May win over Commons

EU chief warns hard Brexit 'catastrophic'

Jean-Claude Juncker
Jean-Claude Juncker

By Suzanne Breen and John Downing

"Every effort" will be made to help embattled Prime Minister Theresa May get the EU-UK Brexit deal the necessary approval by the UK Parliament, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has said.

Mr Juncker was speaking as Mrs May again insisted that the current timetable with a Brexit deadline of March 29 will be met.

Her assertion came as senior ministers privately admitted more time is needed even if her deal wins the backing of Parliament.

Senior Tories have accepted that the sheer amount of legislation Parliament must pass to prepare for Brexit, regardless of whether Ms May's plans are approved, makes a withdrawal on the agreed date almost impossible.

One Cabinet minister told The Independent that in the unlikely event the Prime Minister's deal is actually approved on Tuesday, then a couple more weeks would still be needed - if as expected it is not, then a longer delay of Brexit looks inevitable if a no-deal scenario is to be avoided.

However, Mr Juncker said the EU stood ready to help. But this did not extend to reopening the deal signed off at a special summit on November 25.

"No-deal would be a catastrophe both for our British friends and for continental Europeans. So every effort must be made between now and Tuesday to bring this important issue to a good conclusion," Mr Juncker told reporters.

He refused to speculate on what form the EU's "help for Mrs May" would take.

Observers in London said they expect the Prime Minister cannot recruit enough pro-EU Labour MPs to offset the loss of the 10 DUP MPs and dozens of her own party members, and Northern Ireland remained a crucial issue.

Meanwhile, the Ulster Unionists have accused the Secretary of State of destabilising Northern Ireland and emboldening Sinn Fein by her reported remarks that a no-deal Brexit will lead to a border poll. MEP Jim Nicholson said Karen Bradley had made a "series of ill-judged and irresponsible comments".

The DUP and the TUV accused her of scaremongering.

Mr Nicholson said: "Recent reported comments by the Secretary of State on a border poll simply help to embolden Sinn Fein and create further destabilisation in Northern Ireland.

"I am appalled by the Secretary of State's behaviour - she is doing enormous damage to Northern Ireland."

However, Mrs Bradley insisted that the withdrawal agreement was the "best thing" for the future of the Union.

She declined to be drawn on reports that she had warned Cabinet colleagues that a border poll would be much more likely in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

But she said she was aware of her obligation to call such a referendum if there were evidence of a change in public opinion here in favour of reunification.

On a visit to Belfast yesterday, she was asked whether a no-deal would make a border poll more likely.

She responded: "I've said that I believe the best thing for the United Kingdom, the whole United Kingdom and the Union of the United Kingdom, is leaving the EU together as one UK with a deal. That is the best thing for the UK and that is what I am focused on delivering."

Asked about her reported warning at Cabinet on Tuesday, Mrs Bradley said: "I am not commenting on what may or may not have been said at a private meeting.

"But I am well aware of my statutory obligations under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and I am well aware the constitutional status of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.

"My job as Secretary of State is to deliver a deal that gets us out of the EU as one United Kingdom and is good for everybody in the United Kingdom, and that means everybody in Northern Ireland.

"That's what I am working to deliver."

TUV leader Jim Allister claimed little heed was paid to what Mrs Bradley said in Northern Ireland, although "republicans are probably drawing comfort from her support for the backstop betrayal and foolish talk about a border poll".

DUP MP Gavin Robinson insisted that Theresa May's deal undermined the Union.

"If Karen Bradley was really sincere she would support calls to bin the backstop," Mr Robinson said.

Sinn Fein MLA Jemma Dolan said: "The people of the North have already rejected Brexit and they should be given the opportunity to decide which union they want to belong to."

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