Brussel, Belgium : British Prime Minister Theresa May came out of a European Union summit in Brussels while failing to convince the bloc about her proposals on a divorce agreement. EU leaders, commentators and many others now say that it is Britain that should compromise to prevent a collapse in Brexit talks.
British and EU officials were highly confident they could reach an agreement on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc this week but they continue to hold each other responsible for any glitch that could bring the talks to a collapse.
The expression of optimism for a Brexit deal came on Thursday after the EU summit in Brussels where British Prime Minister Theresa May reportedly received a warmer welcome than a previous meeting in Salzburg, Austria, last month.
“What I’ve had from leaders around the table … since I arrived here in Brussels yesterday is a very real sense that people want that deal to be done,” said May at a news conference, adding. “I am confident that we can achieve that good deal.”
EU leaders also hailed the alleged progress in talks on Brexit, saying the two sides were closer to a final solution than ever.
“What I feel today is that we are closer to the final solutions and the deal,” he told a news conference,” said EU Council President Donald Tusk.
EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker also expressed optimism that a deal will be in the reach, saying “It will be done.”
Britain left with few options
Despite the show of optimism, there was a general impression after the summit that one side to the Brexit talks should finally make compromises to avoid a total failure. And many believed that side was Britain as the EU has shown little sign of backtracking from its conditions on the future situation of the border on the Island of Ireland.
French President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday that talks had no further technical issue to resolve, adding that it was up to London to settle political differences at home.
“It’s now very clearly up to the British prime minister and her staff to come back with a solution based on the necessary political compromise on the UK side,” said Macron during a news conference in Brussels.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had also said Wednesday that one side will have to compromise to find a way “to square the circle” of the Northern Irish border.
Many say May would finally have to accept EU’s backstop plan, which will include Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs union for the two-year transition period that starts after Brexit date on March 29, 2019 and even beyond that until a permanent solution is found on bilateral trade.
May said after the Brussels meeting that her government would consider extending the transition period to enable both London and the EU to think of a permanent trade solution, which in turn would facilitate the removal of the backstop. In fact, the backstop is meant to guarantee that there will never be a physical border between Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, a UK province, to prevent a revival of sectarian disputes on the island.
“We are all working, we’re intensifying the work on these issues that remain,” May said in Brussels.
However, May’s spokeswoman told reporters on Thursday that London was considering other ways of making progress in Brexit negotiations than a mooted extension to the transition period.
“It’s an idea at this stage, and there are others,” said the spokeswoman without elaborating on further details.
May has been reluctant to accept an extension to the transition period as her opponents in Britain have warned that such a move would be a betrayal to the vote of the British people who decided in a referendum in June 2016 for their country to leave the EU.
It wasn’t all bad news in Brussels
It wasn’t all bad news in Brussels, though Theresa May’s concessions have gone down badly at home.
The Brexit summit fell far short of the breakthrough that it was long touted to be. But a tiny glimmer of progress is emerging.
The two sides are inching toward a plan that could clear the path to a deal. The idea that’s breathing new life into the negotiations is an old one. Some might call it extend and pretend, or just taking a bit more time to get to the final destination.
Both sides now think there’s merit in keeping the U.K. inside the European Union’s full membership rules for longer after it formally leaves the bloc, with an option to extend the 21-month transition period past December 2020.
That would give negotiators more time to resolve the biggest obstacle blocking a deal: how to avoid customs checks at the border between the U.K. and Ireland, without erecting new barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.
The proposal to extend the transition period has gone down badly at home. Members of Parliament who back Brexit — and those who don’t — have lined up to criticize the move, which will inevitably cost the U.K. billions in EU budget contributions. Brexiteers loathe the idea of staying bound by the EU rules any longer, while Remainers saw it as more evidence that a good deal simply can’t be done. Here’s our liveblog of how it all went down.
The move follows a bad month for Brexit talks. In September, Prime Minister May was humiliated when leaders rejected her plans at a summit in Salzburg, Austria, which she’d hoped would be a chance to engage constructively. Then, just as negotiators thought they were making progress, on Oct. 14 talks spectacularly broke down as Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab made a surprise visit to Brussels to tell EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier the plan was unacceptable.
This week, leaders were on their best behavior, trying to avoid another breakdown. May’s address to her fellow leaders didn’t go very well. Some were even left confused and frustrated. But her willingness to move her position on the transition has been rewarded with a bit of flexibility on the EU side too, according to officials on both sides. The EU has agreed to engage with May’s proposal for a so-called backstop guarantee to avoid customs checks on the U.K.-Ireland border — which would involve keeping the whole U.K. inside the EU’s customs regime.
According to an EU official, the bloc decided that time is running out and they can’t afford any more breakdowns.
If there’s one message May’s team will want to take home with them, it’s Merkel’s words: “I think that where there’s a will, there should be a way,” said the German leader, who later met May in Brussels for a one-on-one.
“I think there is a way.”