BRUSSELS/LONDON (BLOOMBERG) – British Prime Minister Theresa May and her top lawyer will travel to Dublin on Friday (Feb 8) as she races to forge a breakthrough with European leaders resisting changes to their Brexit plan.
Following a day of tense talks in Brussels on Thursday (Feb 7), Mrs May plans to dine with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar on Friday evening, while her attorney-general, Mr Geoffrey Cox, will meet his counterpart Seamus Woulfe in the morning to discuss the contentious issue of the Irish border.
On Thursday, Mrs May and senior European Union officials set a new deadline in an attempt to break the impasse that threatens to push Britain crashing out of the bloc next month without an agreement. The two sides agreed their negotiating teams would get back round the table by the end of February for further talks.
With just 49 days to go until Britain’s scheduled departure from the EU, getting Mr Varadkar on side will be crucial for Mrs May’s efforts to find a solution for the future of the Irish border that has become the biggest obstacle to a deal.
Mrs May and her Cabinet will spend the coming days meeting leading EU figures to convince them to change the divorce deal in a way that would be supported by a majority of politicians in the British Parliament.
In London on Friday, Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond will host German Vice-Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a day after Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU must “do everything” to avoid a no-deal Brexit. Next Monday, UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier for further talks.
After British parliamentarians last month rejected the agreement Mrs May brought back from Brussels in November, she is demanding changes to the so-called Irish border backstop arrangement. While the backstop was designed as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border on the divided island of Ireland, it is also become the most contentious part of the divorce deal because it effectively keeps Britain bound to EU rules.
But, with the EU rebuffing Mrs May’s requests on Thursday, there is no clear solution in sight. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Mrs May he did not want to reopen their divorce deal, according to a British official.
“We must secure legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to deal with the concern Parliament has over the backstop,” Mrs May told reporters in Brussels. “Taking back changes to the backstop, together with the other work we’re doing on workers’ rights and other issues, will deliver a stable majority in Parliament and that’s what I’ll continue to work for.”
According to three European officials, Mrs May asked several times for the EU to include a time limit on the backstop in a meeting with Mr Juncker and Mr Barnier on Thursday. They rejected the idea.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
Another person, familiar with the British side of the negotiations, had a different summary of the meeting. Mrs May raised all three options that she is considering for changing the backstop: alternative arrangements including technological solutions; a time limit; and a unilateral exit clause. She did not express a preference for any of the three, the person said.
The deadlock raises the prospect of the negotiations going down to the wire. EU officials said there are currently no plans to arrange an emergency EU summit – necessary if there are changes to the deal or if Mrs May asks for Brexit to be delayed – before a scheduled gathering of leaders March 21 to 22.
That would be just a week before exit day, and would further fuel the sense of panic and despair among British and European businesses that are pouring resources into contingency measures they hope they will never have to use. A no-deal exit would plunge businesses into a legal limbo, snarling trade and damaging economies on both sides.
“Still no breakthrough in sight,” EU President Donald Tusk tweeted after his meeting with Mrs May. “Talks will continue.”
The EU said the Brexit divorce deal – which contains the backstop – is not up for renegotiation, but that the political declaration focusing on future relations can be revised. There are questions over whether that would satisfy British members of Parliament because the declaration is not legally binding and would not remove the need for the backstop.
A British official said Mrs May is also planning to seek further meetings with other parties after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday offered to work with her if she committed to staying in a customs union in order to avoid the backstop. The letter he sent Mrs May sparked a backlash in his own party, as it did not mention the option of a second referendum.