Guy Verhofstadt | European Parliament Audiovisual
The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March but, so far, there has been no agreement reached with British MPs on the terms of its withdrawal.
The EU insists the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened, which has led to rising fears of a no-deal Brexit. It is not known exactly when May will return to Brussels but it is expected to be next week.
In a plenary debate on Brexit this week, Verhofstadt, who chairs Parliament’s Brexit steering group, told MEPs, “I am glad Mrs May is coming back and I hope she will also come to the Parliament as we requested over a year ago.”
“The question, however, is what is she coming for and what will she do? What is her mandate? If her plan is to change the UK red lines that would go a long way to achieving a breakthrough and change the outcome of the whole process,” he added.
Further comment came from ECR MEP Ashley Fox, who noted that the Withdrawal Agreement had been rejected “by an overwhelming” majority in the House of Commons over two weeks ago.
The Conservative MEP told the plenary, “Now is not the time for rhetoric, but to reflect. Some MEPs here still hope that the UK will stay in the EU but that is not going to happen and we must not ignore the outcome of the 2016 Referendum result.”
On the thorny Irish border issue, he said, “We want an orderly withdrawal but the fact is that the Irish backstop in its current form will not prevent but create a hard border.”
“I am glad Mrs May is coming back and I hope she will also come to the Parliament as we requested over a year ago … The question, however, is, what is she coming for and what will she do?” Guy Verhofstadt
Another contributor to the debate was Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, who, in a reference to this week’s Commons vote on Brexit, said, “For the first time this week the UK Prime Minister Theresa May openly called to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK government then explicitly supported the amendment.”
Barnier referred to the “extraordinary and lengthy negotiations” on Brexit and said he shared “the will of the UK Parliament to avoid a no deal. “
Barnier told MEPs, “The Withdrawal Agreement is and remains the best and only means to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom and to implement in an orderly manner the sovereign decision taken by the majority of UK citizens which we respect: that being to leave the European Union.”
“Despite the difficulties we're facing today I believe we can achieve that objective on the condition that we are both lucid and realistic and we are responsible and respectful on both sides.”
“But, to those who think the Brexit deal agreed between the two sides can be reopened, he added, “The backstop is part and parcel of the Withdrawal Agreement and this agreement will not be renegotiated.”
“The conclusions of the European Council in December, which are in line with the resolutions of the European Parliament, leave no scope for doubt on that point on the backstop, just so that everyone fully understands what we're talking about.
“The backstop. It's not any kind of dogmatism. It is a realistic solution,” Barnier said, adding, “The backstop is a pragmatic response to the unique situation on the island of Ireland.”
Meanwhile, on Friday, EU ambassadors agreed that, following Brexit, UK citizens coming to the Schengen area for a short stay (90 days in any 180 days) should be granted visa-free travel.
The plans were approved by Parliament earlier this week, and the ambassadors also mandated the Romanian presidency to start negotiations with the European Parliament on this.
According to EU rules, visa exemption is granted on condition of reciprocity.
The UK government has stated that it does not intend to require a visa from EU citizens travelling to the UK for short stays.
A council spokesman said, “In the event the UK introduces a visa requirement for nationals of at least one Member State in the future, the existing reciprocity mechanism would apply and the three institutions and the Member States would commit to act without delay in applying the mechanism.”