Brexit deadlock continues as EU rebuffs May’s plan

SCRABBLING::The British prime minister and her Cabinet are to spend the next few days meeting EU figures in an attempt to convince them to change the divorce deal

Bloomberg

Sat, Feb 09, 2019 - Page 4

British Prime Minister Theresa May and her top lawyer was yesterday to travel to Dublin 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, May was planning to have dinner with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was to meet Irish Attorney General Seamus Woulfe in the morning to discuss the contentious issue of the Irish border.

On Thursday, May and senior EU officials set a new deadline in an attempt to break the impasse that threatens to see the UK 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 this month for further talks.

With just 49 days to go until the UK’s scheduled departure from the EU, getting Varadkar on side will be crucial for May’s efforts to find a solution for the future of the Irish border that has become the biggest obstacle to a deal.

May and her Cabinet are to 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 UK Parliament.

In London yesterday, British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond was to host German Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz. whose leader German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday said that the EU must “do everything” to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

On Monday, British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Stephen Barclay is to meet with European Chief Negotiator for the UK Exiting the EU Michel Barnier for further talks.

After UK legislators last month rejected the agreement May brought back from Brussels in November last year, 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 has also become the most contentious part of the divorce deal, because it effectively keeps the UK bound to EU rules.

However, with the EU rebuffing May’s requests during Thursday’s talks, there is no clear solution in sight.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told May he did not want to reopen their divorce deal, a UK official said.

“We must secure legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to deal with the concern parliament has over the backstop,” 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, May asked several times for the EU to include a time limit on the backstop in a meeting with Juncker and Barnier on Thursday. They rejected the idea.

Another person, familiar with the UK side of the negotiations, had a different summary of the meeting.

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 no plans to arrange an emergency EU summit — necessary if there are changes to the deal or if May asks for Brexit to be delayed — before a scheduled gathering of leaders on March 21 and March 22.

That would be just a week before exit day.

“Still no breakthrough in sight,” EU President Donald Tusk tweeted after his meeting with May. “Talks will continue.”