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May faces Brexit showdown with EU leaders today amid talks of transition extension

May will meet with EU president Donald Tusk this evening before briefing her 27 European colleagues.

Image: Matt Dunham via PA Images

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May faces a Brexit showdown with frustrated EU leaders today with talks to agree an orderly break-up at an impasse.

This week’s summit in Brussels was billed as a “moment of truth” for negotiations on Britain’s exit from the bloc – but it seems so far the truth is that the two sides just cannot agree.

“I am going to ask Prime Minister May whether she has concrete proposals on how to break the impasse,” EU president Donald Tusk declared.

But May, hemmed in by opponents in her own party and even in her own cabinet, has no such proposals.

“The prime minister set out her position and where she thinks the negotiations are yesterday,” a Number 10 spokesman said yesterday.

Even the choreography of today’s summit opening emphasises British isolation. 

May will meet one-on-one with Tusk at 5.45pm (3.45pm Irish time) before briefing her 27 European colleagues. But then the rest of the EU leaders will leave to discuss Brexit over dinner without her.

Tusk has made it clear that if May and EU negotiator Michel Barnier do not offer signs of concrete progress towards a draft deal he will not call a November summit to sign it.

Instead, the whole circus could either be pushed back to December or – more dramatically – the EU could use the November weekend to meet on preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit.

Previously, both sides had agreed that Britain crashing out of the Union on 29 March next year with neither a divorce agreement nor a road-map to future ties would be an economic and diplomatic disaster.

But, after Britain’s refusal to accept an indefinite legal “backstop” to prevent the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, doubts are mounting.

Speaking to RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland, Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “Of course people were hoping we would have a deal later this week. I and the Taoiseach were, I think, urging caution at the end of last week that it was going to be very difficult to get everything signed off this week. 

think we need to accept that negotiations that are this complicated and are as politically charged as this one is, particularly in Westminster, isn’t going to be easy to get across the line, so people shouldn’t panic that it wasn’t finalised this week.

‘No optimism’

Back in Brussels, a stern Tusk said he had “no grounds for optimism” based on a report yesterday from Barnier and May’s appearance in parliament on Monday.

The main disagreement between London and Brussels is over how to keep the Irish border open after Brexit, but May is also fighting with her own MPs, who must ultimately approve the final divorce deal.

At a three-hour cabinet meeting yesterday morning, which included ministers with reservations about her strategy, May said a deal was possible if they all stood together.

“I’m convinced that if we as a government stand together and stand firm, we can achieve this,” she said, according to her spokesman.

Belgium Brexit EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier (left) with European Council President Donald Tusk Source: Oliver Hoslet via PA Images

Arriving in Luxembourg to brief EU ministers, Barnier said: “We need more time to find a comprehensive agreement.”

EU diplomats have said this morning that Barnier has opened the possibility of extending the one-year transition period in an effort to unblock stalled talks. 

Barnier told European Affairs Ministers yesterday “that one of the options was to extend the transitional phase by one year (to 2021)” in order to gain more time to negotiate trade deal, EU diplomats told AFP.

Addressing the possibility of extending the transition period, Coveney told Morning Ireland: “Britain has already signed up for a transition period, in principle at least … as part of that it has been agreed the transition period would carry on until the end of 2020, which is nearly two years. 

I and others have been saying that it’s going to take more than two years to negotiate a comprehensive future relationship and future trade deal. The prospect of extending that transition period was always something that was there in the background. 

No deal plans

Addressing MPs in the House of Commons on Monday, May had said a deal was “achievable” while sticking to her principles on the Irish border issue.

But a senior European official said the speech had only underscored for Barnier the uphill struggle he faces to get an agreement.

To solve the Irish question, Britain has proposed staying aligned to the EU’s customs rules until a wider trade deal can be signed that avoids the need for any frontier checks.

But her own eurosceptic Conservative MPs are demanding this “backstop” arrangement be time-limited, something the EU will not accept.

May said the EU was also insisting on its own “backstop” in case the London proposal did not work, which would see Northern Ireland alone stay aligned to the customs union and single market.

She says this would threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom – and it is strongly opposed by her Northern Irish allies from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Economists fear “no deal” Brexit would greatly disrupt trade, travel and manufacturers’ supply chains in Europe, push Britain into recession and even have global consequences.

Yesterday, the chairman of the US Federal Reserve Jerome Powell warned that a “disorderly Brexit” would slow the EU economy as a whole and have a knock-on effect on US banks.

© – AFP 2018 with reporting by Hayley Halpin

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