UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS
UK Prime Minister Theresa May. Picture: REUTERS

Belfast/London — British Prime Minister Theresa May is under mounting pressure to rethink her plan for leaving the EU, after Brexit talks reached a stand-off at the weekend over the so-called Irish backstop.

Less than six months before the UK leaves the bloc and days before May heads to Brussels for a summit on Wednesday when both sides hope to make progress, the Brexit talks were paused on Sunday after the two sides failed to agree on how to deal with the UK's 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, Britain's biggest shift in policy for more than 40 years.

May, a self-declared unionist who has said repeatedly that she could not countenance the breakup of the UK, is struggling to find a way to satisfy the demands of not only the EU, but of her Conservative Party and her partners in parliament, Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

For now, there has been little success in narrowing the gap between those competing demands, and Ireland's foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said any deal would now "take a bit more time than many people had hoped".

The DUP, which has threatened to pull support from the government over the backstop row, said it now believed a no-deal Brexit was almost inevitable and described the talks in Brussels as turning into a "battle for the union".

"Given the way in which the EU has behaved and the corner they've put Theresa May into, there's no deal which I can see at present which will command a majority in the House of Commons," said the party's Brexit spokesperson Sammy Wilson.

"So it is probably inevitable that we will end up with a no-deal scenario," he told the Belfast News Letter.

May's former foreign minister, Boris Johnson, the figurehead of Britain's Brexit campaign and one of the bookmakers' favourites to replace May, was equally critical, saying the talks were "now entering the moment of crisis".

"In presuming to change the constitutional arrangements of the UK, the EU is treating us with naked contempt," he wrote in his weekly column in the Telegraph newspaper.

"It is time to scrap the backstop."

Backstop to backstop

It was that kind of opposition that made it impossible for May's Brexit minister, Dominic Raab, to agree to a deal in Brussels on Sunday. British officials said London could not agree to Brussels' demand to have "a backstop to a backstop", which would see the EU's proposal to keep Northern Ireland in the bloc's customs union if a new trading relationship is not in place in time.

Britain has long said it wants an agreement on a future relationship with the EU, which London sees as including a common rule book for manufactured and agricultural products, which would negate any need for a backstop plan for Ireland.

But EU negotiators have criticised that proposal, and said on Sunday it was clear that, as things stood, May did not feel she could get a deal through her cabinet of ministers, who will meet on Tuesday.

EU officials and diplomats say they will "keep calm and carry on", hoping May can sort out her problems in London.

British officials were optimistic about making some progress at the EU summit this week, with foreign minister Jeremy Hunt telling reporters in Luxembourg: "There are one or two very difficult outstanding issues but I think we can get there. Whether we do this week or not, who knows? But I know everyone is trying incredibly hard."

But any solution to the border question looked far off. Ireland again said Britain must make good on its commitment to have a backstop plan.

"For us we want to see an outcome here that settles nerves, that allows us to move ahead with a managed, sensible Brexit," Coveney told reporters.

"I still think it's possible to do that, but clearly it's going to take a bit more time than many people had hoped." 


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