BRUSSELS (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to win legally binding assurances from the EU on her deal to quit the bloc was cast as a humiliation by opponents on Friday after she exasperated other leaders with a stilted defence of Brexit.
With the British parliament deadlocked, the ultimate outcome of the Brexit project remains unclear, with possible outcomes ranging from a disorderly departure with no deal to another referendum on European Union membership.
May, who on Wednesday survived a plot in her party to oust her, asked EU leaders on Thursday at a summit in Brussels for political and legal assurances to help her convince the British parliament to approve her deal.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron ruled out reopening last month’s agreement, aimed at ensuring a smooth exit on March 29, though leaders assured her that it should not bind Britain forever to EU rules.
But diplomats said May had exasperated EU leaders at a meeting on Thursday by failing to outline precise proposals for what she needed to push the deal through, and even at one point used her much-derided mantra of “Brexit means Brexit”.
“If this is all she has for us, there is no point trying too hard now,” one diplomat told Reuters. “She still needs to do her homework – maybe she’ll come back in January with something concrete and then we will see.”
“To say ‘Brexit means Brexit’ more than two years after it all started was what toughened the other leaders’ stance,” said the diplomat.
May’s allies at home said the summit was a useful start, but the opposition Labour Party said May had failed and called to parliamentary vote on the deal that she postponed on Monday, fearing a heavy defeat, to be held next week.
Arlene Foster, the leader of the Northern Irish party that props up May’s minority government, urged May to stand up to the EU and win legally binding changes to the deal.
On the currency market, sterling fell around a cent to $1.2570 and looked set for its biggest drop in seven weeks.
May was shown remonstrating with Jean-Claude Juncker at the summit on Friday in an official video.
What they said was not audible but May was shown repeating herself while the former Luxembourg premier held her by the arm, shook his head and raised with his palm in an apparent effort to calm her down before the Dutch prime arrived to interrupt them.
British newspapers said May had been humiliated. “Stabbed in the backstop: EU leaders tell PM to get stuffed,” The Sun newspaper’s headline said.
May asked for political and legal assurances that the so-called Northern Irish backstop would be temporary, and urged the leaders to look at her track record of delivering results even when the odds looked stacked against her.
The backstop is an insurance clause obliging Britain to follow EU trade regulations until a better way is found to avoid a “hard border” between Britain’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland.
“Over the last two years, I hope I have shown that you can trust me to do what is right, not always what is easy, however difficult that might be for me politically,” May said, according to a senior British official.
May said she believed there was “a majority in parliament who want to follow through on the referendum and leave with a negotiated deal” but cautioned that an accidental no deal was possible.
EU leaders quashed a line in an earlier draft of their statement which had held out the prospect that further “assurances” could be given in January.
One person briefed on the exchanges said May was “grilled” by leaders. “Everybody asked: What exactly do you want?,” he said. “She had no solid answers.”
Diplomats said May indicated she would want to come back for a second bite of “assurances” with “legal force”, and some said they would be willing to listen and try to accommodate her.
But leaders also warned that the EU was prepared for Britain to leave without a deal rather than risk unravelling its own system of close integration: “We have postponed the showdown moment. It will come back in January,” one EU diplomat said.
Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan