Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Jean-Claude Juncker said, “There is a surprise guest at the European council, which is Brexit. I am surprised because we had reached an agreement.”
EU leaders are due to meet for a summit in Brussels on Thursday although Brexit was not supposed to be on the agenda.
Juncker’s comments on Tuesday come after UK Prime Minister Theresa May delayed the UK Parliament’s vote on the Brexit withdrawal deal in order to seek “reassurances” from the EU on the issue of the Irish backstop.
The vote had been due to take place on Tuesday.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Monday, May said she recognised there was “widespread and deep concern” about the Irish backstop, and that existing safeguards to ensure that the backstop would be temporary “do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance that they need.”
She said that she would seek “additional reassurance” on the backstop from the EU ahead of this week’s European Council summit.
May also announced that the Government was considering “new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.”
“There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation, but of course there is room, if used intelligently, to give further clarifications and interpretations without opening the Withdrawal Agreement” Jean-Claude Juncker
She further stated that the Government is stepping up its work on No Deal preparations.
May will meet the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, in Berlin and Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, in the Hague on Tuesday to seek further assurances that the backstop would never come into force.
WITHDRAWAL AGREEMENT HERE TO STAY
In a speech, Juncker told MEPs, “Notwithstanding that it would appear that there are problems right at the end of the road, I will meet Mrs May this evening.”
He said the Withdrawal Agreement was “the best and only deal possible,” adding, “There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation, but of course there is room, if used intelligently, to give further clarifications and interpretations without opening the Withdrawal Agreement. Everybody has to know the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.”
“It is necessary for the entire coherence of what we have agreed with Britain, and it is necessary for Ireland,” Juncker said.
European Council President Donald Tusk, meanwhile, has called for a special Brexit summit on Thursday, saying, “We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a No Deal scenario.”
A European Commission spokesperson said, “This deal is the best and only deal possible. We will not renegotiate the deal that is on the table right now. That is very clear,” adding, “Our position has therefore not changed and as far as we’re concerned the UK is leaving the EU on the 29 March 2019. We are prepared for all scenarios.”
STALLING FOR TIME
Elsewhere, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accused Jeremy Corbyn and his Labour party of stalling on supporting either a confidence motion in May’s leadership or a second referendum.
“As I understand it, they don’t think the time is right for a motion of confidence,” she said on Tuesday. “For goodness’ sake, if the time is not right now, when will the time be right?”
“We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a No Deal scenario” Donald Tusk
More reaction came from Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who said that the Withdrawal Agreement was “the only deal on the table,” and that it could not be re-opened without “opening up all aspects” of the Agreement.
The leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster commented, “My message was clear. The backstop must go. Too much time has been wasted. Need a better deal. Disappointed it has taken so long for the Prime Minister to listen.”
Responding to May’s statement, DUP deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said that May’s position “simply isn’t credible,” adding, “This is an impossible situation for the Government to find itself in.”
Dodds told May to “start listening and come back with changes to the Withdrawal Agreement or it will be voted down.”
‘NO DEAL’ INCREASINGLY LIKELY?
French Minister for European Affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, said that a No Deal Brexit was “more and more likely,” adding that such a scenario would be “undoubtedly extremely costly for the United Kingdom but would also be damaging for the EU.”
This comes as the French National Assembly began on Monday night to debate a Bill to prepare for all Brexit scenarios, including a No Deal.
Separately, German Foreign Affairs Minister, Heiko Mass, said, “I do not see what we can change to the Brexit agreement. We have an agreement supported by both sides.”
Meanwhile, a new flash survey of EU citizens has underscored the increasing support for the European Union and growing awareness of next year’s elections.
It shows 68 percent of citizens see EU membership as a good thing, 47 percent of respondents have already heard about the European elections in May 2019 and 77 percent of citizens want a real debate about the future of the EU between the lead candidates for the next European elections.