May and Juncker hail ‘constructive’ Brexit talks
The two leaders acknowledged the ‘tight timescale’ facing them.
Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said they are “seized of the tight timescale” facing them after holding “constructive” Brexit talks.
The comments came after the Prime Minister travelled to Brussels to seek legal assurances on the Northern Ireland Brexit backstop she believes are needed to secure Parliamentary approval for her Withdrawal Deal.
A joint statement issued following the meeting said: “The two leaders agreed that talks had been constructive and they urged their respective teams to continue to explore the options in a positive spirit.
“They will review progress again in the coming days, seized of the tight timescale and the historic significance of setting the EU and the UK on a path to a deep and unique future partnership.”
The statement said discussions had looked at “which guarantees could be given with regard to the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature and give the appropriate legal assurance to both sides”.
Talks also covered “the role alternative arrangements could play in replacing the backstop in future”.
The statement added: “Both reconfirmed their commitment to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and to respect the integrity of the EU’s internal market and of the United Kingdom.”
The two leaders said they tasked the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay “with considering the process the European Commission and the UK will follow”.
Th discussions looked at whether changes can be made to the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and EU that are consistent with positions taken by both sides.
The PM and Mr Juncker agreed to talk again before the end of the month.
After the meeting, Mrs May said: “I have underlined the need for us to see legally binding changes to the backstop that ensure that it cannot be indefinite.
“That’s what is required if a deal is to pass the House of Commons.
“We have agreed that work to find a solution will continue at pace.
“Time is of the essence and it is in both our interests that when the UK leaves the EU it does so in an orderly way.
“So, we have made progress.”
Mrs May said Mr Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will be in Brussels on Thursday for more talks.
Senior officials said the Prime Minister will be attending a two-day EU-League of Arab States summit in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheikh starting on Sunday.
Around 20 EU leaders are expected to take part, including German chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish premier Leo Varadkar, and Mrs May is expected to hold a series of one-to-one meetings on the margins of the main summit.
However, officials stressed they were not expecting any decisions relating to the Brexit negotiations.
“This is not a meeting about Brexit and the Prime Minister is not going to seek to turn it into one,” one official said.
The PM believes that gaining legally binding assurances that the backstop will not extend indefinitely is the key to winning the support of MPs for her deal, and seeing off efforts to extend the negotiation period in a series of Commons votes expected on February 27.
The backstop arrangements would see the whole of the UK remain in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland following some single market rules until a wider trade deal is agreed, in order to prevent the need for checkpoints on the Irish border.