Brexit deal still achievable, Theresa May tells MPs

Latest: British Prime Minister Theresa May has insisted that a Brexit deal is still “achievable” despite deadlock in negotiations just days ahead of a crunch European Council summit.

Mrs May called for “cool, calm heads to prevail” after talks last weekend failed to bridge differences between the UK and EU over the future status of the border in Ireland.

And she warned of the danger that failure to reach agreement over the border could result in the UK leaving the EU without a deal in March next year.

Mrs May was addressing the House of Commons just two days before she travels to Brussels for a summit at which it had initially been hoped to finalise the UK’s withdrawal agreement as well as a political declaration on future trade and security relations.

Theresa May addresses the House of Commons (PA)

Following the failure to achieve a breakthrough when Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Sunday, the European Commission confirmed that no further negotiations will be held ahead of Wednesday’s summit.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the prospect of agreement “looks a bit more difficult again”, adding: “If it doesn’t work out this week, we must continue negotiating, that is clear – but time is pressing.”

Berlin wants the UK’s withdrawal next March to be orderly “but not at any price”, Mrs Merkel told a conference of German exporters.

And Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested a deal may be delayed as late as December.

Mr Varadkar said Dublin was making preparations for a “potentially catastrophic” no-deal withdrawal, but did not believe that this was the most likely outcome.

But Sammy Wilson, Brexit spokesman for the DUP, which props up Mrs May’s minority administration in the Commons, said that a no-deal outcome was now “probably inevitable” due to the “intransigence” of EU negotiators.

Talks at the weekend foundered over the EU’s demand for a “backstop to the backstop” designed to ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open under any circumstances.

(PA Graphics)

Mrs May has offered to keep the whole of the UK temporarily in a customs union with the EU until a broader trade deal is in place avoiding the need for customs and regulatory checks at the Irish border, with the expectation that this will not be later than the end of 2021.

But Mr Barnier insisted that a carve-out keeping Northern Ireland alone in the EU’s customs area should remain available in case the UK-wide arrangement lapses before the trade deal is finalised.

Mrs May told MPs that this was not acceptable as it risked undermining the integrity of the UK.

The British PM warned that the Irish issue must not be allowed to “derail” progress towards a deal which she said was in the interests of both the UK and EU.

She told MPs she would take steps to ensure that “we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely”.

And she warned: “We are entering the final stages of these negotiations.

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.”

Mrs May voiced her “frustration” that the Irish border issue was holding up agreement on Brexit.

But she said: “We cannot let this disagreement derail the prospects of a good deal and leave us with the no-deal outcome that no-one wants.

“I continue to believe that a negotiated deal is the best outcome for the UK and for the European Union.

“I continue to believe that such a deal is achievable. And that is the spirit in which I will continue to work with our European partners.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn dismissed Mrs May’s comments as “another ‘nothing has changed’ moment from this shambles of a Government”.

(PA Graphics)

Mrs May’s call for calm came after former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said talks were “entering the moment of crisis” and urged the PM to reject the EU’s offer and scrap the backstop.

“The EU is treating us with naked contempt … (offering) a choice between the break-up of this country or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission,” Mr Johnson told the Daily Telegraph.

The impasse threatens to throw into disarray carefully choreographed plans which would have seen leaders of the remaining 27 EU states give the green light on Wednesday to a special summit in November to finalise the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the bloc.

It remains unclear whether Mrs May will be given the opportunity to address fellow leaders before they go into a working dinner to discuss Brexit in her absence.

Reports from Brussels suggest that the EU27 are now considering using the mooted November summit to discuss preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Watch as Theresa May updates House of Commons on Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May is updating MPs on the state of Brexit negotiations in a statement to the House of Commons this afternoon after talks over the weekend failed to produce the hoped-for breakthrough on the backstop arrangements for Ireland.

Mrs May was scheduled to make her address at 3.30pm, and you can watch her speech live here:

Earlier today, Downing Street insisted that the Mrs May remains "confident" of getting a Brexit deal, despite the failure to bridge differences over the future of the Irish border ahead of this week's crunch summit.

The impasse means that meetings between "sherpas" in Brussels have been cancelled, and UK Government ministers will have no withdrawal plan to approve at Cabinet on Tuesday, before Mrs May travels to the European Council summit the following day.

European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: "Despite intensive negotiations several key issues remain unresolved. I can say that no further negotiations are planned ahead of the European Council."

The PM's official spokesman said that "real progress" had been made on a number of issues and the Government was determined to press on with talks.

But he said that the EU continued to insist on the possibility of a carve-out for Northern Ireland which could see a customs border down the Irish Sea - something Mrs May has already said would be unacceptable to any British Prime Minister.

Britain is offering a temporary backstop arrangement under which the whole UK would remain in the EU customs area unless an open border in Ireland was secured by a broader trade agreement.

Discussions were said to have broken down after EU negotiators demanded a "backstop to the backstop", under which Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union after the time-limited UK-wide arrangement came to an end.

Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said talks were "entering the moment of crisis" and urged Mrs May to reject the EU's offer and scrap the backstop.

"The EU is treating us with naked contempt ... (offering) a choice between the break-up of this country or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission," Mr Johnson told the Daily Telegraph.

Mrs May's spokesman said that reports that a deal had been reached at official level on Sunday, only to break down when Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, should be "taken with a pinch of salt".

The spokesman said: "We have made real progress in a number of key areas. However, there remain a number of unresolved issues relating to the backstop.

"The European Union and the UK are both clear that they want to secure a good deal and that is what both sides are working towards.

"We remain confident of getting a deal because it is in the interests of both the UK and the European Union.

We've said that we want to continue to make progress in the coming days and weeks. That's what we are focused on.

He added: "The EU continues to insist on the possibility of a customs border down the Irish Sea. This is something which Parliament has already unanimously rejected and is not acceptable to the Prime Minister."

Arriving in Luxembourg for an EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, Irish Tanaiste Simon Coveney said Dublin and Brussels simply wanted Mrs May to follow through with backstop agreements already made in December and March.

He told reporters "a backstop can't be time-limited", adding: "The backstop will be there unless and until something else is agreed, but unless you have something to replace it well then the backstop needs to be there as an insurance mechanism."

But the DUP's Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, told the Telegraph: "One part of the UK cannot be left behind, bound to rules set in Brussels. The constitutional and economic consequences of such an approach would be catastrophic in the long run."

The impasse threatens to throw into disarray carefully choreographed plans which would have seen EU leaders meeting in Brussels on Wednesday give the green light to a special summit in November to finalise the terms of the UK's withdrawal from the bloc.

It remains unclear whether Mrs May will be given the opportunity to address leaders of the remaining 27 EU states on Wednesday before they go into a working dinner to discuss Brexit in her absence.

Reports from Brussels suggest that the EU27 are considering instead using the mooted November summit to discuss preparations for a no-deal Brexit.

Brexit talks stall ahead of crunch summit for May

Theresa May’s leadership and her plans for Brexit are under pressure after a setback in talks with Brussels.

A hastily arranged meeting between Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and European Union negotiator Michel Barnier failed to produce a breakthrough, leaving the process on a knife-edge ahead of a crunch summit on Wednesday.

The impasse over measures to prevent a hard border with Ireland has thrown the timetable for reaching a Brexit deal into doubt.

Following the meeting in Brussels, Mr Barnier said that “despite intense efforts” there had been a failure to reach agreement on one of the trickiest aspects of the negotiations.

The surprise announcement of the meeting fuelled rumours a deal was set to be done ahead of this week’s summit of EU leaders.

But after talks which lasted a little over an hour, it was clear that major obstacles remained including the so-called backstop measure to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Brexit.

The UK Government said there were still “unresolved issues” relating to the backstop but it remained committed to making progress at the European Council meeting.

But with Mrs May under siege from Tory Eurosceptics and her DUP parliamentary allies, the Government also has a reason to appear to be taking a tough line.

The Prime Minister’s room for manoeuvre is severely restricted, with opposition to both the EU’s proposed backstop and concerns about her own alternative.

In presuming to change the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, the EU is treating us with naked contempt

The EU version, which would see just Northern Ireland remain aligned with Brussels’ rules, has been called unacceptable by Mrs May and is loathed by the DUP.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, the DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said: “One part of the UK cannot be left behind, bound to rules set in Brussels. The constitutional and economic consequences of such an approach would be catastrophic in the long run.”

Mrs May’s counter-proposal for a “temporary customs arrangement” for the whole UK is viewed suspiciously by Brexiteers who fear it becoming an indefinite position which would prevent free trade deals with countries around the world.

Agreeing to such a measure could trigger a Cabinet revolt and the potential resignation of senior ministers.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the backstop idea as a whole should be jettisoned.

“In presuming to change the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom, the EU is treating us with naked contempt,” he said.

“Like some chess player triumphantly forking our king and our queen, the EU Commission is offering the UK Government what appears to be a binary choice.

“It is a choice between the break-up of this country, or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission.”

Ireland’s ambassador to the UK Adrian O’Neill said events in Brussels were a “setback” and could increase the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

He told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour: “Time is running out, there is no doubt about that. In all member states, preparation for all eventualities are ramping up quite significantly.”

A special EU summit pencilled in for November to sign off a Brexit agreement could instead end up being used as an emergency meeting to discuss “no-deal” plans.

Talks will take place on Monday between DUP leader Arlene Foster and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, while Mrs May will meet Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald in Westminster.

The febrile atmosphere in the Tory ranks has seen former Brexit secretary David Davis emerge as a potential successor to Mrs May.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries publicly suggested he could be the leader to deliver the kind of Brexit sought by Eurosceptics.

The Prime Minister’s critics believe the threshold of 48 Tory MPs calling for a no-confidence vote could be passed by Wednesday, depending on events in Brussels.

Allies of Mr Davis said he has been contacted by several Tory MPs urging him to run for the leadership and he is understood to be prepared to take part in a contest.

Ms Dorries backed Mr Davis for the top job, saying: “Getting May out and him becoming an interim leader may be the only way to deliver Brexit and FTA (a free-trade agreement).”

PA & Digital Desk

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