EU leaders refused to give ground to Britain’s Theresa May on Thursday, warning that her Brexit plan is unacceptable, even as she offered to come up with new proposals for the Irish border.
After this week offering to extend the deadline for a deal to a special summit in mid-November, European Union leaders warned after talks in Salzburg that it would not happen without more progress.
EU Council President Donald Tusk and French President Emmanuel Macron tore into May’s plan for economic ties with the EU after Brexit, saying it simply “will not work” and was “not acceptable”.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said there was “a lot of work to do” before the bloc could agree a political declaration on trade, which Britain wants as part of the final Brexit divorce.
They were speaking after meeting without May at a summit in the Alpine city to discuss their approach to the final stretch of negotiations ahead of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU in March.
“We are today at the hour of truth,” Macron said, saying the bloc’s remaining 27 leaders expected “new British proposals in October.”
London and Brussels had originally said they wanted an agreement by October’s EU summit, but after months of stalled progress, Tusk suggested holding another one in November to clinch the agreement.
But he warned on Thursday that this would only work if progress can be made in the next four weeks.
“If we feel that we are able to finalise and formalise our deal in November, I will call this extraordinary meeting, but not as an emergency but as a punchline of effective negotiations before October and during our October EU council meeting,” he said.
– New Irish proposals –
After receiving what she described as a “frank” briefing on the Brexit talks from Tusk, May gave a defiant press conference in which she insisted her plan was “the only proposal on the table”.
Her plan for Britain to follow EU rules on trade in goods after Brexit, despite leaving the bloc’s single market and customs union, has already sparked a backlash among eurosceptics at home.
She insisted it is the only way to provide the “frictionless” movement of goods on the frontier between British-ruled Northern Ireland and the Irish republic, which both sides have pledged to keep open.
However, May signalled that Britain may be willing to compromise on another sticking point in the talks, on a fall-back plan to avoid frontier checks until it can be resolved through a wider trade deal.
Tusk repeated that the EU needs “tough, clear and precise guarantees” on Ireland.
May said she would “shortly” bring forward new proposals on the so-called backstop on how to carry out regulatory checks on goods going in and out of Northern Ireland.
The EU has proposed that Northern Ireland continue to follow many EU trade rules and regulations, which London has strongly rejected.
May says she cannot accept having customs checks within the United Kingdom. However, she refused to deny the new plans would involve regulatory checks in the same way.
– New Brexit vote –
Merkel and other leaders praised the progress that had been made in the negotiations, and Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “I’m still optimistic we can come to a joint position later this year.”
Asked if the EU’s criticism of her plans increased the prospect that the two sides would fail to reach a deal, May said: “We are continuing to work for a good deal.
“I think you will have heard both President Tusk and a number of the EU leaders saying that they are looking and hoping and working to that good deal, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”
May is under intense pressure at home from eurosceptic members of her Conservative party not to give away too much in the Brexit talks.
There are fears that whatever deal she secures with the EU, she will not be able to get it through the House of Commons, where she has only a slim majority.
Calls are now growing for a re-run of the 2016 Brexit vote — calls endorsed in Salzburg by both the Maltese and Czech leaders.
However, May warned it would not happen under her leadership, saying: “The UK will leave on March 29 next year.”