British PM May speaks to the press at the European Council headquarters in Brussels
British prime minister Theresa May reopened talks with EU leaders on the Brexit agreement yesterday and was bracing for a clash with senior EU officials during a day of divorce negotiations.

May was welcomed by European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in a glum, stiff handshake ceremony that underscored the simmering tension between the UK and the other 27 EU member states.

With the departure date of March 29 closing in, May is expected to be stonewalled by the EU officials when it comes to reopening the legal withdrawal agreement which was already endorsed in November before the UK parliament overwhelmingly rejected it.

The gap between both sides was already yawning, but European Council president Donald Tusk exacerbated the frosty climate on Wednesday by wondering aloud what “special place in hell” might be reserved for those who backed Brexit while having no idea of how to deliver it.

Highlighting the sensitivities, a public welcome appearance on camera between May and Tusk was suddenly cancelled, hours before the encounter.

And instead of jovial kisses, Juncker held out his hand for May to shake and quickly ushered her off into his office.

UK officials said May’s primary concern was not to be “trapped” into a controversial system to avoid lengthy checks on the Irish border, which could see Britain linked to the EU in a customs union for an indefinite time.

Britain’s parliament voted down May’s Brexit deal last month, largely because of concerns about a provision for the border between the UK’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the UK in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.

Many pro-Brexit British lawmakers fear the backstop will trap Britain in regulatory lockstep with the EU, and say they won’t vote for the withdrawal agreement unless it is removed.

May will still be looking for changes in the 585-page legally binding withdrawal agreement, something the 27 other EU leaders oppose.

May insists that “alternative arrangements” can be found, but EU officials have been waiting for weeks for London to spell out what they are.

In London, there was significant momentum from the opposition Labour Party making its biggest move in months. Party leader Jeremy Corbyn dangled a possible way out of the impasse, saying his party could support a Brexit deal if May committed to seeking a close relationship with the EU after Britain leaves, including a commitment to maintain roughly equivalent standards in areas such as the environment and workers’ rights.

Corbyn’s key demand is permanent British membership in a customs union with the EU.

It is the firmest signal yet that Labour lawmakers might be willing to vote for a Brexit deal. But the party - like May’s Conservatives - is divided. Corbyn’s position disappointed some Labour Party legislators who had hoped he would back calls for a second referendum on whether to leave the EU. AP African News Agency (ANA)