British Prime Minister Theresa May will face EU leaders Wednesday in a make-or-break summit, as European Council President Donald Tusk warned the UK i
British Prime Minister Theresa May will face EU leaders Wednesday in a make-or-break summit, as European Council President Donald Tusk warned the UK is barreling towards a disastrous no-deal Brexit.
Talks over the weekend stalled, with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, saying “key issues are still open.” The sticking point remains the thorny issue of the Irish border.
The European Union wants the UK to agree a “backstop” or fallback position that would ensure an open border between Northern Ireland, which will be outside the EU, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain an EU member state.
A source familiar with the talks told CNN that negotiators were very close to a draft agreement, but that it was killed in London by May.
Now the British leader has less than 48 hours to turn things around, before she addresses a meeting of European leaders on Wednesday evening.
Her most recent EU summit experience was a bruising one, with Tusk and others rejecting her proposals and blasting the UK’s attitude towards negotiations.
The most damning assessment came from French President Emmanuel Macron, who told May that Brexit was sold sold to the British people by “liars (who) left the next day so they didn’t have to manage it.”
In an emergency statement to the UK Parliament Monday, May defended the “real progress” made in negotiations, but she added an EU proposal on how to handle the Northern Ireland border “threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom.”
While a host of issue remain to be settled in the incredibly complicated process of extricating the UK from the EU, the biggest problem remains that of Northern Ireland border.
Both London and Brussels are seeking to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland. Removing check points was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland after years of deadly violence.
For European leaders, the best way to ensure this is with a “backstop” agreement, whereby failing other solutions, Northern Ireland will remain closely tied to European regulations on goods and services, including customs arrangements, after Britain leaves the bloc.
May argues this amounts to splitting the UK into different customs zones, a political nonstarter.
But her counterproposal, that the whole of the UK remain inside the EU’s customs union on a time-limited basis, has been rejected by Brussels.
All attempts to reconcile these positions have so far failed.
May faces pressure not only from within her Conservative Party, but also its allies in Parliament, the Democratic Unionists, or DUP, a right wing Northern Irish party determined to avoid reunification with the Republic of Ireland.
The DUP said it will not accept any deal that results in Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the UK.
Should the DUP break with the Conservatives, May could face a no-confidence vote in Parliament that sparks a general election, with the not inconsiderable chance this would result in the Tories losing power altogether.
Reports in the British press said DUP leaders are preparing for a no-deal Brexit as the most likely outcome due to this issue. Tusk too, warned EU leaders Monday that they should be ready for the worst.
“We should … remain hopeful and determined, as there is good will to continue these talks on both sides. But at the same time, responsible as we are, we must prepare the EU for a no-deal scenario, which is more likely than ever before,” he said. “Like the UK, the Commission has started such preparations, and will give us an update during the meeting.”
‘Failed to reassure’
May found little support for her approach in the House of Commons Monday, with attacks from lawmakers on both the right and left.
Conservative MP Simon Clarke accused her of having “failed to reassure the house,” while the DUP’s leader in Westminster, Nigel Dodds, demanding May reiterate the UK would leave the EU “together with no part hived off either in the single market or customs union differences.”
While supporters of Brexit have so far dominated the debate within the Conservative Party, there were calls from members of its pro-EU wing to avoid a hard exit and retain many of the benefits membership of the bloc brings the UK.
Four Conservative MPs — along with multiple opposition lawmakers — used the debate Monday to urge May to call a second referendum to allow the British people to have a say on whether to proceed with Brexit, a sentiment which has been gathering support in the UK amid the chaotic negotiations.
Opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn blasted May’s approach, saying “the Prime Minister’s failure to stand up to the warring factions on her own side have led us to this impasse.”
“There is a Brexit deal that could command the support of Parliament and the country—a Brexit deal that would benefit Britain and allow us to rebuild our communities, regions and economy, and avoid any hard border in Northern Ireland—but that is not her deal,” Corbyn said.