BRUSSELS • European Union leaders were expected to give British Prime Minister Theresa May a tough reception in Brussels yesterday, warning her to rally support at home for the Brexit deal on offer or be cut loose without one in March.
Mrs May will address the other 27 EU national leaders at a summit before they dine without her.
Officials said they expected the leaders to tell Mrs May they have little more to offer since talks stalled on Sunday and will step up preparations for Britain to drop out of the bloc with no deal.
Summit chair Donald Tusk said the risk of a "no deal" taking Britain out of the bloc and into legal limbo and border chaos on March 29 was greater than ever.
He put the onus on Mrs May to bring a "creative" solution to break the impasse over the EU-UK land border on the island of Ireland.
The "no deal" message is sincere enough. It is also a tactic to pressure a negotiating partner the EU views as weak. And it might help Mrs May by giving her the kind of political theatre useful in persuading Britons she has fought for the best deal.
Leaders may also sound relaxed on the calendar for talks.
The main sticking point in Brexit negotiations is how to keep Britain's land border with the Republic of Ireland open after it leaves the European Union. London believes frontier checks can be avoided through a new trade agreement with Brussels, but accepts the need for a fallback plan until that deal is agreed. However, the two sides have been unable to agree on the terms of this so-called backstop.
1 Why is this an issue?
After Britain leaves the EU, the land border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will become an external EU frontier.
Britain says it wants to leave the bloc's Customs union and single market, meaning checks would be required on people and products crossing the border.
But both London and Brussels have pledged to avoid any physical infrastructure, or "hard border" on the 500km frontier, worried that it could upset the delicate peace process that ended decades of violence between Protestant supporters of British rule, and Irish Catholics nationalists, who believe in a united Ireland.
2 Is there a security risk?
British and Irish army checkpoints along the border were removed after the 1998 Good Friday peace accords, which largely ended three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland.
Police have warned that any new infrastructure along the border could become a target for paramilitary activity by dissident militants who have not signed up to the peace deal.
3 What is the EU proposing?
The EU's backstop proposal would see Northern Ireland stay in elements of the bloc's single market and Customs union.
British Prime Minister Theresa May says this is unacceptable, arguing that it would effectively carve off Northern Ireland from the rest of the country. The issue is particularly sensitive as Mrs May's government is propped up by Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, which rejects any attempt to change the province's status.
4 What does Britain want?
Mrs May's backstop proposal centres around a plan to create a temporary Customs arrangement between the EU and the whole of Britain, including Northern Ireland. But she suggests it should only be in place until the end of December 2021 - something Brussels has rejected, saying any fallback plan cannot be time-limited.
5 Areas of compromise?
Mrs May said the bloc has "responded positively" to Britain's backstop proposal, but has insisted it have an end date.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier has suggested that "most checks can take place away from the border, at the company premises or in the market", but checks in ports and airports would remain.
On Tuesday, officials echoed the mantra that "the clock is ticking" to agree a treaty that parliaments can ratify in time for Brexit. But, sensing more urgency in London, senior EU officials said Brussels would "keep calm and carry on".
The bloc's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told ministers from the remaining 27 member states on Tuesday that December was "the ultimate deadline" for a deal with London to give both the European and UK parliaments time for ratification.
EU leaders meeting in Brussels yesterday were not expected to firmly commit to an extra Brexit summit next month, which they had earlier pencilled in, in case of a breakthrough this month.
But a summit next month could be called at short notice if there is solid progress in negotiations between Brussels and London, diplomats and officials said, which the bloc does not expect before Mrs May gets her Budget adopted early next month.
"If we have a deal on the withdrawal agreement, it will be November... or early December," Mr Philippe Lamberts, an EU lawmaker dealing with Brexit, said yesterday.
"I do not expect the transition to end at the end of 2020. The transition period postpones the moment when the backstop will kick in."
After an intense week of talks, London on Sunday walked away from a deal in which the EU offered to extend the post-Brexit transition by a year until the end of 2021 in a bid to make the emergency fix for the Irish border more palatable to Britain.
This "two-tier backstop" would keep Britain in the EU's single market and customs union for longer, giving both sides more time to work out a new trade deal that would maintain an open Irish border from then on.
The EU insists on guarantees that extensive border checks would not return on Ireland regardless of how Brexit goes, something London is finding difficult to accept as it would include some trade barriers emerging inside Britain.
"There needs to be a much clearer, sharper messaging on the choice the UK faces," one senior diplomat told fellow national envoys after talks broke down on Sunday. The EU had gone as far as it could to address Mrs May's difficulties with her hardline pro-Brexit and Northern Irish allies, he said.
Quite how tough the EU message is to Mrs May after yesterday's dinner will depend on her approach, diplomats said. If she brings to Brussels the uncompromising tone they heard a month ago in Salzburg, then the EU warnings of impending calamity will step up.
EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker was expected to tell leaders after Mrs May has spoken about his European Commission's plans for a "no deal". Officials say that will include how to rush through emergency EU legislation to cope with huge disruptions to transport and trade links.