Michel Barnier today vowed that the EU will not make any more concessions on the Brexit deal – insisting the UK must give ground.
The chief negotiator launched a combative attack on the ‘negative’ British stance ahead of a meeting with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel jibed that the UK was actually a ‘disunited kingdom’, accusing Eurosceptics of only being willing to say ‘no, no, no’.
The intervention came as Theresa May desperately battles to find a way through the political deadlock, with less than seven weeks to go until the exit date.
Chief negotiator Michel Barnier launched a combative attack on the ‘negative’ British stance ahead of a meeting with Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay
Mr Barnier was speaking after holding talks with Xavier Bettel (pictured right) – who jibed that the UK was a ‘disunited kingdom’
Mrs May was today forced to quell Tory fears that she is about to cave into Jeremy Corbyn’s demand for a permanent customs union with the EU.
Mrs May had caused panic in Tory ranks by appearing to open the door to a grand bargain in a letter to the Labour leader.
But her hopes of finding a way through that satisfied Tory Brexiteers was dealt another blow this afternoon as Mr Barnier said ‘something has to give on the British side’.
Up to 60 Labour MPs ‘looking for ways’ to back May’s Brexit deal
Up to 60 Labour MPs are ‘actively looking for ways’ to support the PM’s Brexit deal, it was claimed today.
Wigan MP Lisa Nandy said she would not support Theresa May’s plans in their current form.
But she said many of her colleagues were keen to get a package agreed.
The comments came as Mrs May confirmed she is ready to give commitments on the environment and workers’ rights as she woos Opposition backing.
There have also been claims the government is looking to pump money into Brexit-voting areas to secure votes.
Ms Nandy told the BBC’s Politics Live 40-60 Labour MPs were ‘actively looking for ways to support this at the moment’.
Mr Barnier is due to meet Mr Barclay for dinner later but warned ‘clarity’ on the fate of the deal must ‘come from London’.
Speaking in Luxembourg this afternoon, he said: ‘It’s in London where they have to find the ways and means to build a positive majority between the two negative majorities that exist today in the House of Commons.
‘We stand ready to give all necessary explanations and all necessary guarantees on the withdrawal agreement act, as have already done the two Presidents Juncker and Tusk.
‘We stand ready to rework with the British the content of the political declaration that sets the frame.
‘Maybe there’s a way to explain better, to have more ambition, to put into perspective the content of the accord, and the backstop.’
Urging Mrs May to consider the ‘interesting in tone and in content’ Labour position, he warned ‘something has to give on the British side’.
Meanwhile, Mr Bettel told the same press conference that the UK is a ‘disunited kingdom’ where pro-Brexit politicians lack ideas and courage.
He moaned that the ongoing uncertainty in London ‘puts us in a position where we don’t know what is likely to happen tomorrow’.
‘The position of the Brexiteers today, to sum it up in one sentence is `No. No, no and no.’ There aren’t any alternative proposals from them,’ Mr Bettel said.
Laughing, he added: ‘It is, in fact, the same protagonists for Brexit and a no-deal who do not have the courage either to put the issue to a peoples’ vote.’
Theresa May (pictured in Downing Street today) has been forced to quell Tory fears that she is about to cave into Jeremy Corbyn’s demand for a permanent customs union with the EU
What are the options for reworking the Irish border backstop?
The EU has flatly dismissed calls for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened.
But Theresa May has promised MPs that she will somehow get legally-binding changes that satisfy concerns about the Irish border backstop.
Here are some possible options for how the PM might seek to get through the impasse.
A unilateral exit clause
Prominent backbenchers including former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has pushed Mrs May to seek a unilateral get-out from the backstop.
The current mechanism can only be deactivated through a joint review system – although the EU insists it is technically ‘temporary’.
But Brussels has insisted that an ‘insurance policy’ that can be ended by one side is not acceptable.
A hard end date to the backstop would allay the fears of most Tory MPs – as long as it is not too far in the future.
Boris Johnson has suggested he could vote for the deal if she manages to get a time limit, although he also said it should conclude before the next election in May 2022.
The former foreign secretary also unhelpfully insisted a legal ‘codicil’ – an amendment which would run alongside the Withdrawal Agreement – would not be enough to win him over and he wants the whole thing unpicked.
Again, the EU has insisted it will not agree to a backstop that is time limited.
The ‘Malthouse Compromise’
Tory Remainers and Brexiteers have been working on a proposal to replace the backstop with a looser, Canada-style free trade arrangements. The plan would deploy technology in a bid to avoid a hard border.
But Brussels has already dismissed the technogical solutions as ‘magical thinking’, saying the systems needed do not yet exist.
Guarantees that the backstop will only be ‘temporary’
The EU’s top official, Martin Selmayr floated the idea of ‘unzipping’ the Withdrawal Agreement and inserting new guarantees about the ‘temporary’ nature of the backstop during meetings with MPs.
He suggested the text of recent letters from Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker could be cut and pasted in without reopening other terms.
But that would be highly unlikely to satisfy Brexiteers.
What will happen next in the unfolding Brexit drama?
MPs will hold another round of votes on Brexit.
They are not due to pass judgement on Theresa May’s deal – instead debating a ‘neutral’ motion simply saying that they have considered the issue.
However, a range of amendments are set to be tabled. They could include proposals to delay the Brexit date beyond March 29.
Labour is pushing a change that would force another ‘meaningful vote’ on the PM’s Brexit deal by February 26, regardless of whether she has finished renegotiating the package with the EU.
Mrs May could have an opportunity to seal a new package with fellow EU leaders at a joint summit with the Arab League in Sharm el-Sheikh.
However, it is not clear how many will attend the gathering – or whether she will have completed the deal by then.
Downing Street is trying to head off a potential Tory Remainer mutiny by promising MPs will get another set of votes by this date regardless of whether there is a final deal.
The PM will attend a scheduled EU summit in Brussels that would effectively be the last opportunity to get agreement.
Some MPs fear that Mrs May is trying to delay for as long as possible, and might even try to hold a make-or-break vote in the Commons on March 26. That would be just 72 hours before Brexit, giving them a very stark deal-or-no-deal choice.
11pm, March 29
The UK is due to leave the EU with or without a deal, unless the Article 50 process is extended with approval from the bloc’s leaders, or revoked to cancel Brexit altogether.