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U.K. PM Theresa May receives sympathy but no promises from EU leaders over Brexit turmoil

European Union leaders offered Theresa May sympathy but no promises Thursday, as the British prime minister, weakened after a leadership challenge, sought a lifeline that could help her sell her Brexit divorce deal to a hostile U.K. Parliament.

'The deal itself is non-negotiable,' says Dutch prime minister

British Prime Minister Theresa May talks with French President Emmanuel Macron as they take part in a European Union leaders summit in Brussels. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Pool via Reuters)

European Union leaders offered Theresa May sympathy but no promises Thursday, as the British prime minister, weakened after a leadership challenge, sought a lifeline that could help her sell her Brexit divorce deal to a hostile U.K. Parliament.

May acknowledged a breakthrough on her Brexit deal was unlikely even as she tried to get tweaks to it that she could use to win over opponents — particularly pro-Brexit lawmakers whose loathing of the deal triggered a challenge to her leadership this week.

May made her pitch for new political and legal assurances at an EU summit in Brussels, before the other leaders discussed Brexit over dinner without her.

EU leaders at the summit said they would try to be helpful, but would not reopen negotiations on a divorce deal that the two sides spent a year and a half hammering out.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister Theresa May at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Britain's departure from the EU, its biggest shift in trade and foreign policy for more than 40 years, is proving anything but smooth, complicated by the deep divisions in her Conservative Party, the lower House of Commons and the country as a whole.

With less than four months before Britain is due to leave on March 29, 2019, May faces deadlock in Parliament over the deal she agreed with the EU last month but which has hardened opposing positions at home, throwing up more uncertainty for businesses trying to predict what will happen to the $2.8-trillion US economy.

May caused an uproar in Parliament on Monday when she scrapped a planned vote on her Brexit divorce deal at the last minute to avoid a heavy defeat.

Anger at the move helped trigger a no-confidence vote among May's own Conservative lawmakers on Wednesday. May won 200-117, but more than a third of her party's lawmakers voted against her. And to secure victory, she promised she would step down as Conservative leader before Britain's next national election, which is scheduled for 2022.

The size of the rebellion within her own party underscores the unpopularity of May's Brexit plan.

The 27 other EU nations are adamant there can be no substantive changes to the legally binding agreement on Britain's withdrawal from the bloc, but have suggested that there could be some "clarifications."

"The deal itself is non-negotiable," Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. "So today is about clarification."

French President Emmanuel Macron was equally firm.

"It is important to avoid any ambiguity," he said. "We cannot reopen a legal agreement, we can't renegotiate something which has been negotiated over several months."

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May and French President Emmanuel Macron at the summit in Brussels. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

"I don't see that we can change this withdrawal agreement again," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said. "We can, of course, talk about whether there should be additional assurances, but the 27 member states will be very united on this."

Many critics

The Brexit deal has many critics but one intractable issue — a legal guarantee designed to prevent physical border controls from being imposed between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. Northern Ireland's 1998 peace accord depends on having an open, invisible border with Ireland.

A Brexit provision known as the backstop would keep the U.K. part of the EU customs union if the two sides couldn't agree on another way to avoid a hard border.

Pro-Brexit lawmakers strongly oppose the backstop, because it keeps Britain bound to EU trade rules and unable to leave without the bloc's consent. Pro-EU politicians consider it an unwieldy, inferior alternative to staying in the bloc.

May shakes hands with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Thursday in Brussels. The Irish backstop is seen by many as the biggest issue preventing the British Parliament from approving the Brexit deal. (Sky News via AP)

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he discussed possible remedies with May on Thursday.

"Some of the suggestions she made made sense, others I thought were difficult," he said.

May's spokesperson said in London that the Brexit deal would be put before Parliament "as soon as possible" in January.

Conservative lawmakers are still at loggerheads over the way ahead — for Brexit and for May. Dominic Raab, the U.K. Brexit secretary who quit last month in opposition to May's deal, said he voted against her in Wednesday's party ballot.

"(Now) we will have to back her as best we can," he said, adding "(but) it looks very difficult to see how this prime minister can lead us forward."

U.K. Foreign Minister Alistair Burt complained in a tweet that Conservative Brexiteers would never be satisfied.

With files from Reuters