LONDON/BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union will not renegotiate the Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May agreed, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Tuesday, as concerns grew that a successor to May could trigger a confrontation with the bloc.
Brexit is up in the air after May announced plans to step down, triggering a leadership contest in the ruling Conservative Party that could bring a new prime minister to power who wants a much more decisive break with the EU.
One of the candidates, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, said it would be “political suicide” to pursue a no-deal Brexit, a reprimand to frontrunner Boris Johnson who said last week that Britain should leave with or without a deal by the end of October.
Hunt, who voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum but now accepts Brexit, said he would try for a new agreement that would take Britain out of the EU customs union while “respecting legitimate concerns” around the Irish border.
The EU, though, said there would be no renegotiation.
“I will have a short meeting with Theresa May, but I was crystal clear: There will be no renegotiation,” Juncker said before a meeting of EU leaders in Brussels.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he believed the risk of Britain crashing out of the bloc without any divorce agreement was growing.
“Well I think there is a growing risk of a no deal. There’s a possibility that the new British prime minister may try to repudiate the withdrawal agreement,” he told reporters.
Any successor to May will have to accept that the Brexit divorce deal she agreed will not be ratified by the current British parliament so they will have to find a solution to the Irish border issue that upset many lawmakers.
Many Brexit supporters opposed her deal because of a “backstop” that requires Britain to adopt some EU rules indefinitely unless a future arrangement is found to keep open the land border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Under laws now in effect, Britain will automatically leave the EU on October 31 without an agreement unless parliament approves one first, the EU grants an extension, or the government revokes its decision to leave.
Pitching himself in contrast to Johnson and others who insist leaving the EU without a deal must remain on the table, Hunt said any such move would be blocked by lawmakers and trigger a national election.
“Trying to deliver no deal through a general election is not a solution; it is political suicide,” Hunt wrote in Tuesday’s Daily Telegraph. “A different deal is, therefore, the only solution – and what I will pursue if I am leader.”
Trade minister Liam Fox, who is not running for the premiership, said while leaving with a deal was preferable, the leadership candidates were agreed that leaving the EU without a deal was better than not leaving.
“If the EU doesn’t want to negotiate any changes – which I think would be unfortunate and I think would be quite surprising – then I think that of course does increase the chance of a no-deal exit,” Fox said during a trade visit to Egypt.