The European Union, it seems, is far more united the the United Kingdom.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, fresh from surviving a no-confidence vote, yesterday implored European Union leaders in Brussels to help her sell the Brexit divorce deal at home, only to be told that her proposals are not clear enough for the bloc to offer a helping hand now.

The Daily Telegraph reported that May was "humiliated once again by EU leaders ... as her attempts to improve her Brexit deal were thrown back in her face".

May pleaded with the 27 other EU leaders to "hold nothing in reserve" in helping her sell the Brexit deal to hostile British lawmakers. Instead, they said they would plough ahead with plans for a cliff-edge "no-deal" Brexit on March 29, with a raft of contingency measures to be presented next week.


Unlike the political chaos that has roiled Britain over Brexit, there has been no such squabbling among the 27 other European Union nations during the impending divorce.

The two years of negotiations has shown a unity in the EU that many observers thought was not possible.

Even British politician Nigel Farage, a force behind the 2016 referendum on Brexit who finds little to praise about the EU, has given grudging admiration.

"We, as Brexiteers, are up against a very well-organised enemy," he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Over the years, EU nations have fought often and hard over many issues such as migration, fishing rights and kicking Greece out of the common currency union. On Brexit, though, their lawmakers have stuck together despite the many cultures, languages and political beliefs.

May was forced to withdraw the Brexit plan from a vote in Britain's Parliament this week when it was clear it did not have enough support to win. Too many lawmakers thought the terms were too tough and would still tie Britain to too many EU rules and constraints, perhaps indefinitely.

Theresa May had little success in getting European Union leaders in Brussels to help her sell the Brexit divorce deal at home. Photo / AP
Theresa May had little success in getting European Union leaders in Brussels to help her sell the Brexit divorce deal at home. Photo / AP

She made a whirlwind diplomatic tour of key European capitals to see what could be achieved and whether there were any fissures to exploit among the bloc's members.

But the nations said there would be no turning back on the 585-page legal agreement they had reached with May.

Their message was the same, an Alpine echo from Berlin to Paris to Vienna.

From German Chancellor Angela Merkel: "I don't see we can change the withdrawal agreement." From French President Emmanuel Macron: "We cannot reopen a legal agreement." From Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz: "There will be no new negotiation of the withdrawal agreement."

On June 23, 2016, Britain approved a referendum to withdraw from the EU by a margin of 52-48 per cent. Since then, May is on her third Brexit negotiator, countless new ministers, and, worst of all, a botched general election she had called that left her Conservatives without a majority in Parliament.

The referendum is still dividing British political life to this day.

By comparison, the unity across Europe has been embodied by Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator. The smooth, silver-haired French diplomat and politician has won widespread praise.

"Whilst I may be on a different side to Monsieur Barnier, I recognise his brilliance compared to the British Prime Minister," Farage said.

Barnier credits his success to being open and transparent, to shuttling relentlessly from capital to capital, and to knowing the Brexit file inside out.

EU nations also were helped by a common fear of the union unravelling further if May was offered a deal so advantageous that other countries might follow.

Their unity was strengthened when two British foreign ministers compared the EU to both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.

Ever since joining European Economic Community in 1973, Britain almost always seemed to be a half-hearted member, insisting on exceptional treatment and continuously trying to slow others to move toward more unity. It refused to join the euro single currency or Europe's passport-free travel area.

British Prime Minister Theresa May, center, arrives for a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. Photo / AP
British Prime Minister Theresa May, center, arrives for a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels. Photo / AP

Before the Brexit referendum, then-Prime Minister David Cameron sought "ironclad guarantees" that Britain would not be bound to ever-closer EU membership, something that fuelled fears about a loss of sovereignty.

Such guarantees would sway the electorate to stay in the EU, he said, and the EU obliged in a deal that was meant to be used as a campaign tool ahead of the vote.

Except that Cameron lost the referendum.

"The Cameron experience shows that the work we do here tends to evaporate," one EU diplomat said yesterday, highlighting the fact that political goodwill is running short, particularly since May already agreed to the Brexit deal last month.

May told European leaders yesterday that "there is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal, so with the right assurances this deal can be passed".

However, she warned that failure could mean Britain crashing out of the bloc without a deal, "with all the disruption that would bring".

EU officials, however, seemed exasperated at the lack of concrete new ideas from Britain.

A proposal for encouraging wording offering to give the UK further assurances was left out of the leaders' final summit conclusions on Brexit.

"I do find it uncomfortable that there is an impression perhaps in the UK that it is for the EU to propose solutions," European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at a news conference yesterday.

"It is the UK leaving the EU.

"And I would have thought it was rather more up to the British Government to tell us exactly what they want."

He said the British must "set out their expectations" within weeks if they want to make progress and avoid tumbling out of the EU without a deal.

- AP