UK Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on Monday (15 October) that a Brexit deal was close to completion, after talks between EU and UK officials broke down over the Irish border question.
Wednesday’s EU summit will come and go without a Brexit agreement, as a weekend of intense talks in Brussels between EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the UK’s Brexit minister Dominic Raab broke up without agreement. No further talks between EU and UK officials are expected before Wednesday’s gathering in Brussels.
However, addressing UK MPs on Monday afternoon, the UK prime minister said that “the vast majority” of the withdrawal agreement had been concluded and that “good progress had been made on the structure and scope of the future relationship”.
“The terms of our withdrawal are now clear,” she said, adding that it was “time for cool heads”.
The main sticking point in the talks remains how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and how long a temporary customs arrangement would last, in the event that a future trade relationship is not agreed before the end of a planned 21-month transition period.
The EU’s proposed ‘backstop’ would see Northern Ireland remain in the customs union. The UK, for its part, has proposed a UK-wide customs arrangement that would end in December 2021, one year after the end of the post-Brexit transition period.
“Both the UK and the EU share a responsibility to abide by the Good Friday Agreement,” said May, referring to the 1998 deal that ended hostilities in Northern Ireland.
“Two key problems remain. The EU says that there is no time to work out the UK-wide solution in the next few weeks,” said May, adding that the EU effectively “requires a backstop for the backstop.”
“I need to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this backstop is not permanent,” she said, adding that “the backstop is intended to be an insurance policy”.
The Democratic Unionist Party, a Northern Ireland party whose ten MPs are propping up May’s Conservative government, maintains that it will not accept being separated from the UK’s internal market.
In a fractious debate, May repeatedly rejected the idea, put forward by some Brexiteers, that technological solutions were available to avoid physical customs checks at the Irish border.
May also ruled out requesting an extension of the Article 50 process, and a series of backbench Conservative and Labour MPs calling for a ‘People’s vote’ on the terms of Brexit, and accused the opposition Labour party of “wanting to frustrate the people’s vote and frustrate Brexit”.
May expressed her determination to avoid “a no deal that nobody wants”.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn described the statement as “another ‘nothing has changed’ moment from this shambles of a government.”
“The blindfold Brexit they are cooking up is a bridge to nowhere,” he added.
— Mark Stone (@Stone_SkyNews) October 15, 2018
A spokesperson for the UK Prime Minister would not say whether May would address EU leaders before they have dinner without her to discuss Brexit on Wednesday night.