European Union leaders gave Prime Minister Theresa May assurances on Thursday that they would seek to agree on a new deal with Britain by 2021 so that the contentious Irish backstop is never triggered.
"It is not open for renegotiation," the 27 national leaders said in a joint statement of the tentative Brexit deal they had agreed with May in late November but which the British leader has since taken back to Brussels for more assurances she says she needs to get it passed by her divided parliament.
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Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said the leaders had heard May express concerns that the backstop could potentially apply indefinitely.
"In the session afterwards we defined two things, firstly that the withdrawal agreement cannot be re-opened and re-negotiated and secondly stipulated and made clear that the so-called backstop, the ruling for Northern Ireland should be temporary and not permanent," he told Reuters.
President of the EU council president Donald Tusk said the bloc stands by the agreement and it's "not open for renegotiation."
In a statement, Tusk said: "The European Council reiterates that it wishes to establish as close as possible a partnership with the United Kingdom in the future. It stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal," he said.
The statement went on to say that "the European Council underlines that the backstop is intended as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and ensure the integrity of the Single Market. It is the Union’s firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered."
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