John Downing: 'EU leaders must give May political cover as she seeks to sell Brexit plan back home'

Unless there is something odd out there, there is not much wiggle room left to polish the text of this draft EU-UK Brexit deal.

But after talks in Brussels yesterday, British Prime Minister Theresa May said she would be back for more EU divorce discussions on Saturday. That is the day before the planned summit set to seal the EU end of the Brexit deal.

Mrs May went to the Belgian capital yesterday afternoon in an effort to put the arm on wily EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Ostensibly, she left with the planned signing of this draft Brexit deal, ideally fixed for Sunday morning, still hanging in the balance.

There are other ‘noises off’ on this one: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is suggesting there is no point in a summit on Sunday if things cannot be finalised. Spain is fighting over Gibraltar, and others, including Ireland, about access to UK waters.

Mr Juncker is an old political fox who knows about political deals and how they might be sold. He will not be unkind to Mrs May in providing political cover as she faces her uphill battle to deliver parliamentary ratification of the Brexit deal.

The political and media focus is now on the details of a political statement on future post-Brexit EU-UK trade and political ties. That will follow the divorce deal which formally kicks in at 11pm on March 29, 2019.

There is a document sketching these EU-UK links which began life at 15 pages to accompany the overall Withdrawal Agreement which runs to 585 pages of legal text.

Essentially, this much-smaller document outlines a general declaration of future intent to frame years of detailed negotiations. This now becomes the focus of preparation for this summit.

It has long been about giving the embattled British prime minister some talking points to help her turn waverers and win an uphill battle in the British parliament, where her numbers make her mission look pretty hopeless.

The best diplomats in Brussels are on the case and will meet again tomorrow to try to come up with serviceable language which will marry totally opposed visions in London of the UK’s future with the EU.

“There are some remaining issues which we have discussed this evening,” Mrs May said after talks with Mr Juncker. “We’ve been able to give direction to our negotiators on resolving these issues, so further progress has been made,” she added.

The Taoiseach has grounds for being upbeat about things as he prepares for his Sunday visit to the EU capital. All the signals are that this Brexit deal – a good outcome for Ireland – will clear this minor-enough hurdle.

The bigger question remains how much political support, within the constraints of what is a deal hard to sell in the UK, this gathering of EU leaders can give Mrs May to take home.

Everyone must be on their best behaviour. The British audience will be key.

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