Theresa May has signalled a Brexit divorce deal is unlikely to be reached at an EU summit starting tomorrow amid a continuing deadlock over Northern Ireland and with ministers and Conservative MPs piling on pressure over the terms of the UK’s future relationship with Brussels.
The Prime Minister said the issue of the Irish border must not be allowed to “derail” Brexit talks, but effectively kicked an agreement on future trade terms further into the distance, with clarity on how long the UK will remain under EU customs rules not emerging until as late as December.
Last night, as Mrs May struggled to rally support for her Brexit strategy from her own party, she met with Nicola Sturgeon and told the First Minister a deal was “still achievable”.
Ms Sturgeon had earlier delivered an appeal to MPs to reject Mrs May’s Brexit deal. Following their meeting, a spokesman for the First Minister said “it remains clear that there remain fundamental issues to be resolved between the UK and the EU”.
Downing Street confirmed the Prime Minister would make a pitch to EU leaders at a dinner in Brussels tomorrow, at the beginning of an EU Council summit.
However, addressing MPs in the Commons following a failure to reach a breakthrough at the weekend, Mrs May revealed the EU had said there was “not time to work out the detail” of the UK’s plan to prevent new checks on goods travelling between Britain and Northern Ireland after Brexit while also maintaining the status quo along the land border with the Republic.
Mrs May called for “cool, calm heads to prevail”, but warned that failure to reach agreement over the border could result in the UK leaving the EU without a deal. Talks at the weekend foundered over the EU’s demand for a “backstop” to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remained open under any circumstances.
Mrs May has offered to keep the whole of the UK temporarily in a customs union with the EU until a broader trade deal is in place, avoiding the need for customs and regulatory checks at the Irish border, with the expectation this will not be later than the end of 2021.
But EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier has insisted a carve-out keeping Northern Ireland alone in the EU’s customs area should remain available in case the UK-wide arrangement lapsed before the trade deal was finalised.
Mrs May told MPs this was not acceptable as it risked undermining the integrity of the UK.
She told MPs she would take steps to ensure that “we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed Mrs May’s comments as “another ‘nothing has changed’ moment from this shambles of a government”.
Mrs May’s call for calm came after former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said talks were “entering the moment of crisis” and urged the Prime Minister to reject the EU’s offer and scrap the backstop.
He said “the EU is treating us with naked contempt” by offering “a choice between the break-up of this country or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission”.
Last night the Prime Minister was due to speak by telephone with French president Emmanuel Macron, who has threatened to veto any further summits on Brexit if progress wasn’t made on the Irish border by this week. Reports from Brussels suggest the EU27 are now considering using any additional summit next month to discuss preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the prospect of agreement “looks a bit more difficult again”, adding: “If it doesn’t work out this week, we must continue negotiating … but time is pressing.”
Berlin wants the UK’s withdrawal next March to be orderly, “but not at any price”.
And Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar confirmed a deal may be delayed until as late as December.
Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for the DUP, which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons, said a no-deal outcome was now “probably inevitable” due to the “intransigence” of EU negotiators.
Although the absence of a deal has dampened down expectations of resignations following the meeting of Cabinet this morning, eurosceptic ministers were last night set to meet over pizza to co-ordinate their stance.
In a letter to EU leaders ahead of the summit, Mr Tusk said: “We wished for maximum progress and results that would lead to a deal in October. As things stand today, it has proven to be more complicated than some may have expected.”