EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, Belgium, on March 6 2019. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN
EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels, Belgium, on March 6 2019. Picture: REUTERS/YVES HERMAN

Brussels — EU and British negotiators conceded on Wednesday that talks aimed at getting their Brexit agreement through parliament in London have been “difficult” as a solution remained elusive three weeks before Britain’s exit.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier reported the continued deadlock to the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, after meeting his British counterparts late on Tuesday.

Barnier informed the commissioners that “while the talks take place in a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult”, spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said. Barnier added that “no solution has been identified at this point that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement”, Schinas told a press conference.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May struck the withdrawal deal with the EU in November, but the British parliament overwhelmingly voted it down in January. MPs continue to challenge the agreement, especially the “backstop” designed to keep the border open between EU-member Ireland and British Northern Ireland after Brexit.

Barnier said the backstop was the sticking point after meeting with UK attorney-general Geoffrey Cox and Brexit minister Stephen Barclay in the Belgian capital on Tuesday.

May’s spokesperson said on Wednesday in London: “My understanding is that the talks were difficult and that there was a robust exchange of views.”

The spokesperson added Britain will “continue to pursue” parliament’s demand for legally binding changes to ensure “the UK won’t be trapped in the backstop indefinitely”. The EU sees the provision as vital to preserving the peace process in Northern Ireland but London fears it will tie Britain indefinitely to an EU customs union.

Cox, the British government’s top lawyer, told Sky News TV that he had put forward some “very reasonable proposals” during his talks.

‘Meat of the matter’

“We’re into the meat of the matter now,” Cox said without revealing the content of the discussions. He promised negotiations would resume soon, while May’s spokesperson said technical talks were ongoing.

Cox’s presence is seen as central as he will ultimately offer a legal opinion on the Brexit deal and the Irish backstop that could determine whether key pro-Brexit law makers will approve the withdrawal agreement.

Earlier advice by Cox, warning that the backstop could keep Britain tied permanently to an EU customs union, was viewed as a contributing factor in the massive defeat of May’s deal by MPs in January.

Barnier insisted anew on Wednesday that the legally binding withdrawal agreement will not be re-opened. The EU says the talks in Brussels are focused on drafting a separate document to placate doubters in London. But most of them continue to press for a time limit or exit clause to the backstop.

They have also set up their own team of lawyers to scrutinise anything that Cox brings back from Brussels.

In 2017, Britain invoked Article 50 of EU law, triggering a two-year countdown to Brexit that ends at 11pm GMT on March 29.  Both sides are furiously trying to steer away from a dreaded “no-deal divorce” that could wreak havoc on global markets and create border chaos.

On Wednesday, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) chopped Britain’s growth forecast from 1.4% to 0.8%, which would mark the first time it has fallen below 1% since 2009, following the global economic crisis.

However ,the OECD emphasised that even this stark projection was based on the assumption of a smooth Brexit.

The UK House of Commons will have another chance to vote on the deal next Tuesday. If MPs again reject it, they will vote in the following days on whether to leave with no deal or delay Brexit.