Theresa May’s hopes of securing the legally binding changes needed to win support for her Brexit deal are fading, after EU sources said it was unlikely there would be a new European summit to approve them.
An emergency council like the one held in November would be needed to sanction any changes that would have legal force.
But diplomats have told The Independent that any concessions offered would be unlikely to require a meeting.
It means any alterations or new language secured by the prime minister will probably not satisfy enough rebel Tories or her DUP partners in government to win the Commons vote expected in the coming weeks.
Only this week the DUP warned the prime minister that unless Brussels gave significant ground on the hated Irish backstop it would not support her plans.
MPs return to Westminster next week and begin several days of debate on Ms May’s deal before it is put to a vote that most people expect the prime minister to lose.
Downing Street has been trying to play down expectations that Ms May will secure a major change before the vote due on 15 or 16 January, but there had been talk that European officials are holding back one concession that they could make to the UK later in the year.
But even for those changes to have legal force, a new summit would need to be called as currently there is only one scheduled for the end of March – far too late to do anything meaningful before the UK drops out of the EU on 29 March.
European insiders told The Independent that the idea of a summit had been considered, but this was now looking less likely.
EU leaders including Emmanuel Macron are also said to be annoyed at the prospect of being dragged back to the EU capital for repeated discussions about Brexit, while they have pressing domestic issues to deal with.
Addressing the question of whether such a meeting would be held, one EU diplomat said: “We can do it without a council and we will do it without a council.”
Alternatives to holding a summit include a simple non-binding statement from the European Commission, an agreement by EU27 ministers at regular meetings in Brussels, or an informal letter signed by EU leaders.
But none of these options would have much pretence of being legally enforceable, and are unlikely to be enough to assuage Tory backbenchers, who want a binding get-out clause from the controversial Northern Ireland backstop.
Another EU source downplayed the need to make any changes legally binding, adding: “It could take the form of a letter; there are different things you can do. Political commitments can be useful too.”
Earlier this week DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds MP said his party’s principled objections to the current EU withdrawal agreement remained and he pressed the prime minister to deliver on her commitments to deal with the backstop.
Speaking after a meeting with the prime minister in Downing Street, he said the backstop, as currently proposed, “flies in the face of the government’s commitments on Northern Ireland as we leave the EU”.
Officials in Brussels are not expecting the first vote to pass, though they are understood to be no less in the dark about the prime minister’s plans for when she loses than anyone in the UK.
The possibility remains for the UK to ask for an extension of Article 50, or to revoke it unilaterally – which would both mean a summit would not be needed.
But even the expected extent of possible further clarifications considered by the EU would be unlikely to impress MPs. It is understood that further assistance may simply involve re-adding paragraphs deleted from the previous statement by leaders in December.
This non-binding statement would say the Northern Ireland backstop, which MPs are against, was “not the desired outcome” and that it would only be for a “short period”.
The extent to which talks are happening is currently uncertain. UK officials in Westminster have been briefing there has been contact between the two sides, but the EU has emphatically stated that no meetings are happening.
Theresa May spoke to Jean-Claude Juncker on Friday over the telephone. The pair were said by a European Commission spokesperson to have had a “friendly” conversation and pledged to stay in touch next week.
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