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Juncker rules out giving May anything more than ‘clarifications’ over Brexit deal

Luke James
Brussels correspondent
European commission president Jean-Claude Juncker speaking on Brexit in Romania on Thursday (Reuters)

EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker has dashed UK prime minister Theresa May’s hopes of securing a game-changing intervention that would change the mood in Parliament over the Brexit deal.

The European commission president said on Thursday that he is in “constant” contact with 10 Downing Street about how he can help May win Tuesday’s vote on the deal.

But he warned the best he can do is deliver a “clarification” on what the backstop will mean – far from the “legally binding assurances” being sought by the government.

Speaking at a press conference in Romania, Juncker said: “We are in touch on a constant basis with Number 10 and we’ll see what happens between now and Tuesday.

“I still hope that there will be a deal. I do not like the prospect of no deal, which would be a disaster I think for our British friends and for the continental Europeans. Every effort needs to be made between now and Tuesday afternoon to ensure that this important issue can be resolved satisfactorily.”

Asked specifically what he was willing to do to help May win the vote, Juncker replied: “There can be clarification but that’s all.

“We’re discussing with Downing Street what these clarifications might amount to. That should not be confused with renegotiation, particularly with regards the backstop.”

Foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt says “legally binding assurances” are needed from the EU to win the vote over the Brexit deal (Reuters)

Juncker said he would resist the temptation to make further comments, saying he didn’t want to “become less popular on different islands.”

His comments shortly after foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt said “legally binding assurances” over the Irish border backstop were needed to win Tuesday’s vote.

He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The EU has agreed it’s temporary, so if we can actually explain to people why it’s temporary and if those assurances can be legally binding so that people really believe we won’t be trapped in the customs union indefinitely then I do believe we can get this deal through.”

READ MORE: Barnier vows backstop will not be weakened by EU’s assurances over Brexit deal

It is expected that Juncker and European council president Donald Tusk will issue a letter to May on Monday in a last ditch bid to convince MPs to back the deal.

However, it is likely only to restate the position agreed by European leaders in December: that the backstop is only an “insurance policy” and, if triggered, would “only apply temporarily.”

That is widely expected to be insufficient to change the outcome of the delayed ‘meaningful vote.’

The EU will give its response to the decision of MPs at 7.30am GMT next Wednesday morning when the European Parliament holds an emergency debate on Brexit.

READ MORE: ‘There is nothing more we can do’ – EU struggles help Theresa May win Brexit deal vote