British Prime Minister Theresa May said she held “constructive” talks in Brussels on Wednesday as she sought concessions on Brexit from a sceptical European Union, her strategy further battered by the defection of three lawmakers.
Looking tense, Mrs May met the head of the European Union’s executive arm, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, on Wednesday evening. He quipped to journalists minutes earlier that a band-aid visible on his cheek was not the prime minister’s doing.
A little over an hour later, they released a joint statement as non-committal as one from a similar encounter two weeks ago, though this time, the talks were not described as “robust” and there was some more detail on joint efforts to fix a deal so as to reassure Britain it will not be bound to EU rules forever.
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29 but diplomats say London has less than a month to overcome the current deadlock in the British Parliament and seal a deal ahead of a regular summit of EU national leaders on March 21-22.
In their joint statement, Mrs May and Mr Juncker said talks were “constructive” and their teams would press on to “explore the options in a positive spirit”.
The two plan to meet again before the end of February, when Mrs May faces a new test in a Parliament, where her minority government just lost three supporters.
With 37 days to go to a potential chaotic Brexit, officials were “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.
Mrs May said afterwards that progress had been made over the backstop, but added that time was running out to secure changes.
Parliament last month voted down the Brexit deal Mrs May had negotiated with the bloc and she has struggled since to unlock a stalemate over the so-called backstop – an insurance policy to avoid customs controls on the Irish border.
“What we need to achieve is legally binding changes which satisfy Parliament that we will not be stuck in the backstop indefinitely,” Mrs May’s spokesman said before the meeting.
In their statement, Mrs May and Mr Juncker said talks focused on finding a legal way to reassure lawmakers that the backstop, binding Britain to EU laws, would be “temporary”.
The EU says setting a time limit on the backstop or giving Britain the right to abandon it unilaterally, as London demands, would make it void. It says the “alternative technological arrangements” advocated by Britain do not exist for now, like mythical unicorns.
In a lighthearted protest against Brexit, several people awaited Mrs May’s arrival for the Juncker talks dressed in pastel unicorn costumes and waving a banner reading “Stop Brexit. Save Britain”.