A negotiated deal between Britain and the European Union is still “achievable”, British Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday, even as the prospects for a breakthrough at an EU summit this week faded. “The shape of a deal across the vast majority of the withdrawal agreement, the terms of our exit, are now clear,” May told lawmakers in the lower house of parliament, the House of Commons. “We have made real progress in recent weeks on both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on our future relationship,” she said, adding that negotiations were now in the “final stages”.
The final sticking point – a deal aimed at keeping borders open on the island of Ireland – was taking time to resolve, she said. Talks on a “backstop option” insisted on by the European Union were being prolonged, she said, by a request for a fallback in case this did not completely work out: “a backstop to the backstop”, as May described it. The two sides have been working on a deal to prevent Britain from crashing out of the EU in March without transitional arrangements in place. A no-deal Brexit is “more likely than ever before”, European Council President Donald Tusk warned EU leaders ahead of this week’s summit, while calling for “every effort to reach the best agreement possible”.
Efforts to close in on a deal have “proven to be more complicated than some may have expected. We should nevertheless remain hopeful and determined”, Tusk writes in his summit invitation letter, noting that there is “good will to continue these talks on both sides”. “The fact that we are preparing for a no-deal scenario must not, under any circumstances, lead us away from making every effort to reach the best agreement possible, for all sides,” Tusk writes. “Let us not give up.” “We want to see an outcome here that settles nerves, that allows us to move ahead with a managed, sensible Brexit,” said Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney in Luxembourg, where he was meeting his 27 EU counterparts.
“I still think it’s possible to do that, but clearly it’s going to take a bit more time than many people had hoped,” he added. “There are one or two very difficult outstanding issues, but I think we can get there. Whether we do this week or not, who knows,” added British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt. German government spokesman Steffen Seibert hinted that the issue may not be resolved at this week’s EU summit, which had been billed as make-or-break time: “Everyone is aware of the fact that time is now very tight.”
The EU summit would help to determine “where the negotiators stand and how they can move forward”, but may not result in agreement, he added. In Dublin, meanwhile, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told media that he thought “November/December is the best time for a deal”, in comments carried by the Irish Times and RTE broadcaster. London and Brussels are at odds over how to prevent the return of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would come into place once Britain – and with it Northern Ireland – leaves the European Union. Free trade and travel are key elements of an Irish peace deal that ended decades of conflict.
May is also facing internal struggles in her Conservative Party, which is deeply divided on the Irish border issue as well as the future relationship between Britain and the EU. Without a solution on these issues, Britain will head for a no-deal Brexit. Yesterday European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the bloc is preparing for every scenario. “While we are working hard for a deal, our preparedness and contingency work is continuing and intensifying,” Schinas said. No new negotiations are due to take place now before EU leaders meet in Brussels tomorrow.
There, May is expected to brief her 27 counterparts ahead of a Brexit dinner to which she is not invited. The decision by both sides to “disengage” until after the summit is “frustrating and disappointing”, Coveney said. But German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas expressed confidence that a deal is still possible, while stressing, “time is really pressing now and I would say: the sooner, the better”. Britain is due to leave the European Union on March 29. The withdrawal agreement will include a 21-month transition phase during which Britain is still bound by EU rules, to prevent the chaos and economic cost of a disorderly exit for both sides. This would also give time to negotiate the future trade relationship between Britain and the EU.
Sources and photo-credits: Gulf Times