News & Politics

EU Leaders Dig in Against May's Brexit Plan While She Mulls Second Referendum

Prime Minister Theresa May speaks during the Conservative Party Conference on Day Four Conservative Party Conference, Day Four, Manchester, UK - 04 Oct 2017 (Rex Features via AP Images)

EU leaders are not making it any easier for British Prime Minister Theresa May to win backing at home for her plan to exit the European Union.

May came to Brussels to attend an EU leadership summit, looking for help to sell the plan to reluctant members of Parliament. Instead, she got the cold shoulder, and a warning that the Withdrawal Treaty was not open for renegotiation.


Specifically, May asked for “legal assurances” to help change a perception that the U.K. would potentially be locked forever into a customs union with the EU via a “backstop” provision intended to prevent the recreation of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the absence of a broader deal on a future trading relationship.

In response, the leaders of the remaining EU countries issued a bare-bones statement reiterating that the backstop was intended never to come into effect, that if it were activated it would “apply temporarily,” and that “the Union would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop.”

But they flatly rejected the idea of any legal guarantees, repeated yet again that the Withdrawal Treaty was not open for renegotiation, and then turned the tables on May, demanding that she and the U.K. provide clarifications as to what exactly would win ratification of the Brexit deal and what precisely London wants in a future relationship.

“Our U.K. friends need to say what they want instead of asking us what we want,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at a news conference. May’s problem is that the EU wants her to fail and won’t lift a finger to help her. She’s on her own with scant political backing at home for her deal — even in her own party.

This is why some of her closest advisers and some prominent Tory MPs are seriously considering calling for a second referendum on Great Britain leaving the EU.


David Lidington, the Cabinet Office minister and May’s de facto deputy, and Gavin Barwell, May’s chief of staff, have discussed holding a second referendum with both Labour MPs and other Cabinet ministers, the Sunday Times reported. The Guardian also said that other Conservative lawmakers were urging the embattled prime minister to offer MPs a so-called “free vote” on holding another plebiscite, or the right for politicians to vote how they believed rather than along party lines.

The reports, although unconfirmed, will ratchet up pressure on May, who has so far failed to garner meaningful concessions from other European Union leaders over changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. The U.K. leader adamantly opposes a second Brexit referendum, but the British media reports suggest that she could be willing to entertain that possibility if she cannot secure a majority for her proposals in the British parliament.

Since it’s unlikely that her plan would achieve success in parliament, May could be forced to hold a vote — if not on leaving the EU then perhaps on whether parliament should adopt the deal she has already made. Either way, failure would only bring more uncertainty to the situation.

It appears that May and the “leave” faction underestimated the institutional roadblocks put in the way of leaving when the EU charter was written. It’s just too easy to derail a nation’s plans to exit the EU in an orderly fashion. In this case, it’s a feature, not a bug, as Great Britain moves toward an uncertain future.