Brussels is giving Britain a day to settle its position on Brexit before deciding how to respond to Prime Minister Theresa May’s dramatic move to “disengage” from talks on an EU exit agreement.
The negotiations broke down at the weekend — just days before a set piece summit — when the UK prime minister dispatched Dominic Raab, her Brexit secretary, to Brussels to make clear that she could not sign up to a “backstop” plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“We decided to let a day pass to see what happens in London,” added a senior EU diplomat.
Mrs May told the House of Commons on Monday that neither Brussels nor London could allow the disagreement to “derail the prospects of a good deal and leave us with a ‘no-deal’ outcome that no one wants”.
She insisted she believed a deal was still “achievable” and that the UK and EU were “not far apart”.
Sabine Weyand, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator, told EU27 diplomats that Brussels would now wait to see if Mrs May could muster the support of her top ministers and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party for an exit deal. Mrs May is due to convene a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
If the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely
Theresa May, UK prime minister
Some Eurosceptic Conservative cabinet ministers have threatened to resign unless Brussels agrees to put a firm end date on the “temporary” customs union between the EU and UK which forms part of the backstop.
Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for the DUP, said that a no-deal exit was “probably inevitable” because of “intransigence” from EU negotiators in Brussels.
The DUP, which props up Mrs May’s government, has threatened to bring down the British prime minister unless she drops a proposal to keep the region in the EU’s single market for goods during the backstop period, putting a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.
Answering members of parliament’s questions on Monday, Mrs May declined to promise that there would be a specific end-date in the backstop or to rule out that Northern Ireland would remain in the single market when the rest of the UK left.
But she faulted the EU for insisting on a “backstop to the backstop — effectively an insurance policy for the insurance policy” that would keep Northern Ireland but not the rest of the UK in the bloc’s custom union.
“We have been clear that we cannot agree to anything that threatens the integrity of our United Kingdom,” Mrs May said.
“If the EU were not to co-operate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely,” she added.
Responding to the deadlock, Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s prime minister, suggested that a deal on the backstop might not be agreed for weeks.
“The initial target if you like was October,” Mr Varadkar told reporters in Dublin on Monday. “That’s now slipped to November.”
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, also voiced the “ frustration” of many countries over what he described as Britain’s decision to in effect “disengage” from the talks before the EU’s 27 remaining member states begin their summit on Wednesday.
Mrs May has been invited to Brussels on Wednesday to address EU leaders before their Brexit dinner. But no further talks are scheduled ahead of the summit, raising the prospect of a complete breakdown in the Brexit process.
London had previously been warned that failure to make “decisive” progress on a withdrawal agreement before Wednesday would have serious implications.
One option under discussion is for member states to call a summit in November devoted to discussing preparations for a no-deal UK exit in the hope it would give negotiators time to make amends. The European Commission may also step up preparations for a hard exit in March, including by the publication of a detailed contingency planning document.
A joint statement by the UK’s Brexit department and Downing Street said that despite “real progress in a number of key areas”, there remained “unresolved issues” following talks between Mr Raab and Mr Barnier.
The UK said it was “still committed to making progress” at Wednesday’s EU summit. Keir Starmer, Labour’s Brexit spokesman, said on Monday that Mrs May should follow his party’s advice and negotiate permanent membership of the customs union to protect the economy.