EU: Difficult Brexit talks unlikely to see swift deal

No solution in sight as March 29 deadline looms; London urged to delay its departure

BRUSSELS • Talks with Britain on amending its divorce deal with the European Union have made no progress and no solution is in sight, EU officials said yesterday, days before British lawmakers must vote on the plan to avoid a chaotic Brexit.

Diplomats said talks in Brussels led by British Prime Minister Theresa May's chief lawyer, Mr Geoffrey Cox, failed to yield a repackaged deal on Tuesday, with barely over three weeks to go before Britain's scheduled exit on March 29.

"(EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier has informed... that while the talks take place in a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult," said Ms Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc's executive.

"No solution has been identified at this point that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will not be reopened," Ms Schinas told a news briefing after Mr Barnier updated the commission.

At the heart of the deadlock is the Irish "backstop", an insurance policy the EU wants to ensure no return to a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.

Mr Cox said yesterday that Tuesday's discussions in Brussels were "robust" and detailed, and would be resuming soon.

Diplomats speculated that, if EU and British negotiators could seal a deal over the weekend, Mrs May could go to Brussels on Monday to give it political endorsement and take it back to London just a day before the House of Commons votes on it.

"It's unlikely there would be a deal before the weekend," an EU official said.

"We are at a standstill," said another EU diplomat.

Britain is set to depart the EU on March 29 under a timetable put into legislation by Mrs May's government in 2017.

The EU's 28 leaders, including Mrs May, will decide at a March 21-22 summit whether to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond March 29.

"How long an extension (it will be) will depend on the House of Commons vote," the diplomat added.

Few in Brussels believe the deal would be ratified by deeply split British lawmakers in their second go at it - two months after they resoundingly rejected the package.

With 23 days left until Brexit and fears on both sides of the English Channel that an abrupt divorce without a pre-negotiated settlement could spell economic turmoil, the EU is now nudging London to delay its departure.

Mrs May last week opened the way to a short extension of the Article 50 period and the EU sees a delay until the end of June as relatively easy.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2019, with the headline 'EU: Difficult Brexit talks unlikely to see swift deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe