LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May urged the European Union on Monday not to allow a stand-off over the so-called Irish backstop to derail the Brexit talks, saying she believed a deal was achievable.
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a roundtable meeting with business leaders whose companies are inaugural signatories of the Race at Work Charter at the Southbank Centre in London, Britain, October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls – RC1786791A20
In a statement to parliament before she heads to Brussels for a crucial summit on Wednesday, May was upbeat about the chances of a deal with the EU, but repeated that she would not agree to anything that could split Britain.
However, less than six months before Britain leaves the bloc, May is under mounting pressure to change her strategy after talks with the EU were paused at the weekend when the two sides failed to agree on how to deal with the UKs only land border with the EU.
The problem of how to prevent the return of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland has become the biggest hurdle to a deal on Brexit, Britains biggest shift in policy for more than 40 years, and has increased the possibility of Britain leaving without a deal.
“It is frustrating that almost all the remaining points of disagreement are focused on how we manage a scenario which both sides hope should never come to pass and which, if it does, would only be temporary,” May said.
“OUTCOME THAT NO-ONE WANTS”
“We cannot let this disagreement derail the prospects of a good deal and leave us with a no-deal outcome that no-one wants,” she told a rowdy session of parliament.
May tried to lead lawmakers, many of whom have criticised not only her Brexit plans but also her negotiating strategy, through the difficulties of what happened in Brussels after her Brexit minister raced there for talks on Sunday.
She said the EU had stuck to its proposal of keeping Northern Ireland in the EU customs union if a UK-wide plan is not ready to be put in place after a transitional arrangement runs out at the end of 2020.
But for May, who has said repeatedly that she will not countenance the breakup of the United Kingdom, any suggestion that Northern Ireland could be treated differently to the rest of Britain was unacceptable.
“As I have said many times, I could never accept that, no matter how unlikely such a scenario may be,” she said.
“So it must be the case, first, that the backstop should not need to come into force.”
But May still faces a struggle to ease the concerns of not only the EU, but of her Conservative Party and her partners in parliament, Northern Irelands Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Eurosceptics in her party fear that a backstop could keep Britain indefinitely in the blocs customs union, while the DUP says it can never accept anything that splits Northern Ireland from the rest of Britain, even going so far as to say it would withdraw the support in parliament upon which May relies.
There has been little success so far in narrowing that gap, and Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said any deal would now “take a bit more time than many people had hoped”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said she had been “very hopeful” that a deal on Britains exit could be achieved but “at the moment it actually looks a bit more difficult”.
A spokesman for May held out hope, saying there were “a number of means of achieving what we want to achieve” on the backstop. He declined to give details and repeated Britains view that any such arrangement would be time-limited.
“I need to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this backstop is a temporary solution,” May told parliament.
“This is the time for cool, calm heads to prevail. And it is the time for a clear-eyed focus on the few remaining but critical issues that are still to be agreed.”
(This story has been refiled to cut superfluous phrase “with the European Union” from first paragraph.)
Additional reporting by Amanda Ferguson in Belfast, Gabriela Baczynska, Francesco Guarascio, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels and Michelle Martin in Berlin; Editing by Janet Lawrence and David Stamp
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