The European Union has warned that “serious divergence” between itself and Britain in Brexit talks risks the possibility of a no deal, following a meeting by the 27 national leaders in Brussels on Friday.
After roughly an hour of discussion, leaders signed off a joint statement pledging to prepare for the possibility of a no-deal situation and highlighting their “concern” at the lack of progress on the Irish border issue.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief negotiator, warned: “On Brexit, we have made progress, but huge and serious divergence remains, in particular on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Mr Barnier called for “workable and realistic proposals” to be included in a UK government white paper scheduled for release next month. He added that “time is very short” and said UK negotiators should return to Brussels on Monday to intensify talks.
The EU says a deal must be struck before October to stop Britain crashing out of the bloc in March without a transition period – a scenario that would be expected to cause economic chaos.
Theresa May on Thursday night addressed leaders over dinner about Brexit for 10 minutes but her speech was apparently overshadowed by hours of discussions about the EU migration crisis, the main focus of the summit.
Asked about Ms May’s dinner speech on Friday morning, Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, looked confused, and said: “There was a speech? Haha.”
The joint statement signed off by the leaders on Friday, which was leaked to The Independent in advance, said coming to a deal “requires further clarity as well as realistic and workable proposals from the UK”.
“The European Council expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution for Ireland/Northern Ireland,” it read.
“It recalls the commitments undertaken by the UK in this respect in December 2017 and March 2018, and insists on the need for intensified efforts so that the Withdrawal Agreement, including its provisions on transition, can be concluded as soon as possible in order to come into effect on the date of withdrawal.
“It recalls that negotiations can only progress as long as all commitments undertaken so far are respected in full.”
The motion says that the Council urges “member states, Union institutions and all stakeholders to step up their work on preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes” – diplomatic reference to a “no-deal” scenario.
The main sticking point in talks is how to avoid a hard border in Ireland. The UK has flat-out rejected EU plans to give a special status to Northern Ireland that would effectively keep it in the customs union and single market, and says any deal must apply to the whole UK and be time limited. The EU says UK plans so far are not enough to prevent a hard border from happening.
The UK also wants to time-limit the policy to placate Brexiteers who fear it could be used to keep Britain in the single market indefinitely, but the EU says it would not accept this.
Theresa May is set to meet with her cabinet at her country retreat, Chequers, next month to hammer out accord among her ministers, who have yet to agree a policy a year and a half after triggering Article 50.
After her dinner, the prime minister said: “On Brexit, I’ve been stressing that we want a deal that’s going to work for the UK and for our European partners and that if we work together we can support each other’s prosperity and security.
“Now we are going to be publishing our white paper shortly and I want to see the negotiations accelerating and intensifying thereafter.”
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