SALZBURG • European Union leaders will push for a Brexit deal next month but warned British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday that if she refuses to give ground on trade and the Irish border by November, they are ready to cope with the collapse of talks.
"Don't worry, be happy," joked EU chief executive Jean-Claude Juncker after telling reporters at a summit in Austria that the Europeans had full plans in place in the event there was no deal before Britain leaves next March.
Mrs May has promised new proposals to reassure Dublin that it would not end up with a "hard border" with the British province of Northern Ireland but warned that she too could live with a no-deal outcome - though many around the summit in Salzburg do not believe that is a credible threat.
She said her "Chequers" plan - named after the country house where it was hammered out in July - for trade with the EU, which is also intended to resolve arguments on the border of Northern Ireland, was the only way forward.
EU leaders repeated their view that the plan would undermine their cherished single market.
But leaders also tried to put a positive spin on their 24 hours of talks. Summit chair Donald Tusk said he was more optimistic about getting agreements both to ease Britain out gently and to sketch out a future free trade pact.
Mr Tusk said a Brussels summit on Oct 18 would be a "moment of truth" to overcome remaining big problems, and leaders pencilled in the weekend of Nov 17-18 to formalise a final agreement.
But Mrs May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were among those who stressed there was still "a lot of work" to do.
Mrs May faces a fight with angry Conservatives at her party's conference from Sept 30. They deride her willingness to bind Britain to so much EU regulation in return for free trade and some would prefer a no-deal "hard Brexit" in March, despite warnings that that would ravage the British economy.
EU leaders understand that she can give little away before the Conservative Party conference ends on Oct 3. But they hope their negotiator, Mr Michel Barnier, can secure her agreement next month to what will be new EU proposals that will be fundamentally unchanged but may be politically more palatable, especially on Northern Ireland.
"It was clear today that we need substantial progress by October and that we then aim to finalise everything in November," Dr Merkel said. "But there is still a lot of work to do on the question of how future trade relations will look."
French President Emmanuel Macron said Mrs May's Brexit plan was unacceptable in its current form and that he expected new proposals from Britain in October to sort out pending issues.
The EU also insists on a "backstop" clause in any withdrawal treaty. This would keep Northern Ireland under EU economic oversight if London and Brussels cannot agree on a trade pact to keep UK-EU borders open after a transition period ends in 2020.
SIGNIFICANT DATES FOR BREXIT
LABOUR PARTY CONFERENCE: Sept 23 to 26
The opposition Labour Party could play a role in the type of Brexit that Britain gets. If Prime Minister Theresa May cannot win over her own party, she could look to Labour lawmakers to help get her plan through Parliament.
CONSERVATIVE PARTY CONFERENCE: Sept 30 to Oct 3
Tensions over Mrs May's Brexit plan will likely dominate the Conservative Party's annual conference. Her rivals, like former foreign minister Boris Johnson, are likely to make their leadership pitch to grassroots members.
EUROPEAN COUNCIL MEETING: Oct 18
Mrs May meets fellow EU leaders and the European Commission to try to seal deals on the terms of Britain's withdrawal. This should cover trade and how to prevent a return of controls on the frontier between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which will become Britain's only land border with the EU.
SPECIAL BREXIT MEETING: Mid-November
Diplomats and EU officials say governments have been discussing holding a special Brexit summit in Brussels on the assumption that the October summit will be too early to approve any deal with Britain.
PARLIAMENTARY VOTE ON BREXIT DEAL: Unscheduled
If Mrs May secures a deal, she has to get Parliament to approve it. Her Conservatives hold 316 seats in the 650-seat Lower House, and she relies on a Northern Irish party to win parliamentary votes. To win approval, she must overcome differences between Conservatives who want a radical break with Brussels, and those who want closer ties. Otherwise, she may have to look to the opposition for support. Both paths are full of uncertainty. Failure could trigger a move against her leadership of the party, or the government's collapse and an early election.
NO DEAL STATEMENT: January 2019
If there is no deal by Jan 21, the British government must make a statement within five days on what the UK plans to do, according to the EU (Withdrawal) Act of 2018.
BREXIT: March 29, 2019 at 2300 GMT
Britain will formally leave the EU. Providing an exit deal is agreed, there will be a transition period during which the bulk of the bloc's rules and regulations continue to apply while the British government formulates and implements replacement policies on issues such as immigration.
TRANSITION PERIOD ENDS: Dec 31, 2020
The transition period, designed to ease the impact on businesses and relieve uncertainty, ends.