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May's Brexit 'theater' exasperates European partners

British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin as she tries to muster EU help in getting her Brexit deal through a hostile Parliament in London
John MACDOUGALL (AFP)

Frustrated EU leaders were resigned to providing Theresa May with a stage for more Brexit theatrics to help convince Britain she really fought for the best divorce possible.

The British premier was touring The Hague, Berlin and Brussels on Tuesday to seek reassurances that Europe will not use her Brexit deal to bind Britain into an indefinite customs union.

May hopes that if the sting is taken out of the so-called "Irish backstop" -- designed to prevent the return of a hard border in Northern Ireland -- British MPs will endorse her plan.

But European leaders have been adamant: They will not renegotiate the text of the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement they concluded with May as recently as November 25 to great fanfare.

Merkel made that much clear again, saying she saw "no way to change" the agreement after meeting May in Berlin.

The frustration and annoyance at having to accommodate Britain's Brexit torment is mounting.

"If they want us to put some soothing ointment on the treaty, we'll put some ointment on it, but we won't change it," said Philippe Lamberts, a Green MEP after he met EU negotiator Michel Barnier.

"We won't change anything of a legally binding nature," he told AFP.

"If they want a declaration of intent that we won't hang on to the backstop longer than is necessary, we can do that. But I don't think the Brexiteers will be content with a declaration of good intentions."

Manfred Weber, leader of the conservative European People's Party, the largest bloc in the European Parliament, was scathing.

"We lost already enough time discussing Brexit," he declared. "We do not play this game, especially on the Irish backstop."

May is nevertheless expected in Brussels later Tuesday for talks with the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker and the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

Both have said they will not "renegotiate" the deal, even if Juncker told the EU parliament that there is room for "further clarification and further interpretations."

So why come at all, just one day after May's humiliating climb down in cancelling a House of Commons vote and two days before she is due back in Brussels for an EU leaders' summit?

"It's theater. She wants to show that she fought hard," a European official confided to AFP.

Another official explained: "The United Kingdom has never been able to form a negotiating position because of the promises it made before the referendum, most of them unrealistic."

The euro skeptic voters who won Britain's 2016 referendum on quitting the EU were promised that they would have a brighter economic future outside the 28-nation bloc.

For European officials, however, the reality always was that post-Brexit Britain could never enjoy the same unfettered access to the single market without accepting EU payments and regulation.

John MACDOUGALL (AFP)

- European mini-break -

With the upbeat economic promises contradicted by the British Treasury's own dismal forecasts, May has to show that she at least defended her red lines on migration and Northern Ireland sovereignty.

And, most of all, she has to show that Europe did not get everything its own way, hence her last minute European mini-break.

"Theresa May wants to show that she got something out of this," said a European official, explaining that EU negotiator Barnier would try to find a reassuring form of words.

The former French minister's team are working on a possible written declaration that can be made after May's visit, and a Brexit date scheduled for Wednesday in Strasbourg has been cancelled.

They will make it clear that they hope never to have to invoke the Irish backstop, that it is simply and insurance policy -- but they will also warn that they will not abandon continuing member Ireland.

And it is far from clear if Barnier's promise will be legally binding.

That, according to British junior Brexit minister Martin Callanan, is what May wants.

It seems unlikely that that is what she will get.

Both French minister for Europe Nathalie Loiseau and Germany's Michael Roth insist the deal can not be renegotiated, and Paris has made it clear it is now preparing for a "no deal" Brexit.

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