European leaders went into last night’s meeting willing to offer Theresa May something that might just help get her much-hated Brexit deal through the UK Parliament.
They came out frustrated, puzzled and reluctant to offer anything more.
The fundamental problem, according to two people briefed on the meeting, is that leaders no longer believe that May knows what she needs to win over British lawmakers.
"You can trust me," she told them last night.
They aren’t so sure.
"The signals we got are not especially reassuring on the capacity of the UK to honor the deal agreed," Belgium Prime Minister Charles Michel said on Friday morning.
The UK prime minister, weakened by a confidence vote in her leadership earlier this week, was invited to set out her case. Leaders were expecting some concrete proposals they could work with - they had made clear they were willing to offer clarifications, but not legal changes to the text.
Chancellor Angela Merkel led the questioning, according to two people familiar with the situation. May failed to come up with a satisfactory proposal to make the so-called Irish backstop more palatable without undermining the deal they spent 17 months hashing out.
May asked for changes that were either vague, or impossible, such as putting a one-year sunset clause on the backstop, according to the people.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker emerged from the meeting saying that now it was the EU who needed "clarifications". Footage showed a tense exchange between him and May in the summit chamber.
The frustration was palpable on Friday morning. Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel summed it up, "No, no no, no, no. There will be no new negotiations."
The danger for the UK is that in just 16 weeks time, the country is set to leave the bloc, with or without a deal in place to cushion the blow. If May gets to mid-January without parliamentary approval, she risks being forced to rip her plan, or even call a second referendum .
The Brits are putting a brave face on yet another diplomatic failure.
May’s deputy, David Lidington told the BBC the meeting was a welcome first step, and the UK side insisted more discussions haven’t been ruled out. The EU’s communique, while tougher than the version that had been drafted before the summit, did offer some reassurances. Just not enough to get British lawmakers onside.
Unusually for a Brexit summit, leaders rolled up their sleeves and redrafted the communique themselves. Normally it’s been stitched up in advance and the summit itself has changed little. But this time the discussion ran on for some three hours - longer than the rubber-stamping exercises of previous meetings.
Going into the meeting, ambassadors had cooked up a proposal to help May out. Some countries were more behind it than others. It involved some warm words now and then another summit in January where a declaration would be issued. But according to one of the people, the leaders have had enough of repeat meetings that fail to live up to expectations.
"Basta," Bettel told reporters.