Theresa May has made an 11th-hour dash to meet EU leaders in Strasbourg as the government insisted the meaningful vote on her Brexit deal would go ahead on Tuesday as planned.
May was greeted in Strasbourg by Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier as she arrived in pursuit of a Brexit compromise late on Monday, after a phone call with the European commission president earlier in the day.
Ambassadors for the 27 EU member states were told at a briefing that the negotiations had become more combative. One source at the table said if the UK was choosing the impossible, it was choosing no deal.
It was, however, disclosed that the prime minister had been ready to strike a deal on Sunday with Juncker but that she was overruled by her cabinet.
Diplomats were told that talks at the weekend had gone “up and down, up and then sadly down again”, according to one source, leading to plans for a visit by the prime minister on Monday morning to be ditched.
The EU has rejected proposals by the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, that would construct something close to a unilateral exit mechanism from the Irish backstop but leaders were on Monday keen to talk up the offer they had made, and avoid another delay to the meaningful vote.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said that Brussels made a “very important offer” during the weekend’s talks. “I think that a very important offer has been made to Britain and now it’s up to Britain to respond to these offers,” she told reporters in Berlin.
The deal proposed by Michel Barnier included a joint interpretative statement that would add legal force to previous assurances the EU would make maximum effort to find alternatives to the backstop.
The UK and the EU will also make unilateral statements about the temporary nature of the backstop, with the British government likely to lean on revised legal advice from Cox.
The commission’s secretary general, Martin Selmayr, warned the EU ambassadors, however, that the situation in London was fluid and that the chances of a general election had increased in recent days.
He said that the safest delay to Brexit would be up to 23 May, ensuring that elections to the European parliament would not create complications. He added, however, that the EU may have to offer the UK a long extension of article 50 should May’s government fall.
Barnier, in turn, was said to be indignant about Cox’s interview in the Daily Mail in which he said that he would find a way to allow the UK to unilaterally quit the backstop.
The attorney general’s claim that the UK could trigger an arbitration mechanism “on the very first day we entered” the backstop was read out to EU ambassadors by an incredulous Barnier.