EU leaders met yesterday to prepare for the final stretch of Brexit negotiations, after public clashes with Britain over who should give ground, but signs of a shift on both sides over the key issue of Ireland.
After pitching her Brexit plan to the other EU leaders over dinner on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Theresa May left them to discuss their next steps without her yesterday.
The meeting in Salzburg, Austria, is the first of three summits in successive months, which Brussels hopes will end with agreement on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc set for March 29 next year.
The Alpine summit began with a warning from EU Council President Donald Tusk that Britain’s offer on post-Brexit trade ties and Ireland — the two sticking points in the talks — must be “reworked.”
May, who is under intense pressure from Brexiteers back home, retorted that she had already made compromises and it was now Brussels’ turn.
She told EU leaders that their proposal to “carve away” Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, to avoid checks on the border after Brexit, was “not credible.”
“The approaches remain very different,” Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters as he arrived for yesterday’s talks. “Away from the discussion in the media, behind closed doors, I have the impression that both sides are aware that a solution can only be found if both sides make a move towards one another. It will nevertheless still be a difficult process.”
“It is an agreement, so we both have to find a compromise,” Luxembourgian Prime Minister Xavier Bettel added.
French President Emmanuel Macron said Britain must still explain how it intends to avoid physical border checks in Ireland after leaving the EU’s single market and customs union.
Both sides have pledged to avoid a “hard” frontier in Ireland, amid fears it could disrupt trade and upset the fragile peace on the island.
Britain has tabled a proposal as part of its Chequers plan for post-Brexit trade ties, but accepts that some fallback plan is needed until this can be agreed.
The EU version of the so-called “backstop” would see Northern Ireland alone continue to follow many EU trade rules and regulations — but London says this would undermine the integrity of the UK.
May yesterday held one-on-one talks with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, who had earlier told the BBC: “I don’t think we’re any closer to a withdrawal agreement than we were in March.”
However, there were signs of some movement, after EU head negotiator Michel Barnier this week suggested any checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK could be away from the border.
May welcomed his willingness to “find a new solution,” and conceded that some checks were already carried out in the Irish Sea, on agricultural products.
A senior British government official also said it would bring forward a backstop proposal for regulatory checks on goods crossing into and from Northern Ireland, raising the possibility of a breakthrough.
However, May repeated her warning that Britain would never agree to any “legal separation of the United Kingdom into two customs territories.”
Both sides had been aiming for an EU summit next month as the deadline to reach an agreement, to allow time for the deal to be ratified by British and European parliaments before Brexit in March, but with the talks deadlocked, Kurz confirmed there would be a final summit in November to clinch the deal.
Over dinner on Wednesday, May had her first opportunity to present to fellow leaders her plan for the post-Brexit trading relationship, which was published in July.
Her proposal to follow EU rules on trade in goods has provoked a fierce backlash among euroskeptics in her Conservative Party, renewing speculation of a challenge to her leadership.
The political turmoil has sparked growing calls in Britain for a rerun of the 2016 Brexit referendum — calls echoed by both the Maltese and Czech leaders in Salzburg.
However, May told fellow leaders it would not happen, nor would Britain consider delaying Brexit to allow more time for negotiations.
“The UK will leave on March 29 next year,” she said over dinner. “The onus is now on all of us to get this deal done.”
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