Talks with Britain on amending its divorce deal with the European Union have made no progress and no solution is in sight, EU officials said on Wednesday, days before British lawmakers must vote on the plan to avoid a chaotic Brexit.
Diplomats said talks in Brussels led by British Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief lawyer, Geoffrey Cox, failed to yield a repackaged deal on Tuesday, with barely over three weeks to go before Britain’s scheduled exit on March 29.
Talks by lower-ranking officials were expected to continue on Wednesday but there was no clear schedule yet for further negotiations between Cox and the EU’s Michel Barnier.
“(EU Brexit negotiator) Michel Barnier has informed…that while the talks take place in a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult,” said Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for the European Commission, the bloc’s executive.
“No solution has been identified at this point that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which will not be reopened,” Schinas told a news briefing after Barnier updated the Commission.
At the heart of the deadlock is the Irish “backstop”, an insurance policy the EU wants to ensure no return to a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland after Brexit.
British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said on Wednesday that Tuesday’s discussions in Brussels were “robust” and detailed, and would be resuming soon.
Diplomats speculated that, if EU and UK negotiators could seal a deal over the weekend, May could come to Brussels on Monday to give it political endorsement and take it back to London just a day before the House of Commons votes on it.
“It’s unlikely there would be a deal before the weekend,” an EU official said. “We are preparing for a working weekend.”
“We are at a standstill,” said a national EU diplomat who follows Brexit.
Britain is currently set to depart the EU on March 29 under a timetable put into legislation by May’s government in 2017.
The EU’s 28 leaders including May will decide at a March 21-22 summit whether to extend the Article 50 negotiating period beyond March 29. “How long an extension will depend on the House of Commons vote,” the diplomat added.
The bloc will be watching the British parliament’s action next week but few in EU hub Brussels believed the deal would be ratified by deeply split UK lawmakers in their second go at it – two months after they resoundingly rejected the package.
With 23 days left until Brexit and fears on both sides of the English Channel that an abrupt divorce without a pre-negotiated settlement could spell economic turmoil, the EU is now nudging London to delay its departure.
May last week opened the way to a short extension of the Article 50 period and the EU sees a delay until the end of June as relatively easy.
But EU leaders have also mooted a longer delay, even though that would risk interfering with European Parliament elections due in May.
EU officials are engaging with May on how to help her coax the hardline eurosceptic faction in her Conservative party to back her deal – or else risk Brexit being put off indefinitely and perhaps never materialising at all.
“If the deal goes through (Britain’s parliament), then everything is fine, although the Brits may request a short, truly technical extension to complete their own legislative process,” a second EU official said.
“But if parliament rejects her deal for a second time, a short extension would not make much sense. A longer extension would be needed, six months, nine months, a year, two years.”
A long extension could also be problematic for the EU given the European Parliament elections in May, which Britain would either have to take part in or be out of the EU before the new assembly convenes in early July.
Some EU politicians, however, have suggested they would be willing to work around these legal constraints.