Frustrated European ministers yesterday insisted there was still time to reach a Brexit deal despite the latest failed round of divorce talks, but the EU warned it was stepping up preparations for failure. Meeting in Luxembourg, foreign ministers from the bloc's 28 members admitted that no agreement will be struck this week at an EU leaders' summit that had earlier been billed as the "moment of truth."
EU Brexit point man Michel Barnier met his British counterpart Dominic Raab in Brussels on Sunday, but they failed to agree to a draft Brexit divorce arrangement, as EU leaders prepare to arrive tomorrow for the summit.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, whose country would suffer the biggest economic impact after the United Kingdom from a "no-deal" Brexit, played down expectations of a Brexit deal being reached at an EU summit this week, saying an agreement was more likely in November or December.
"I know some people are optimistic about an agreement on the withdrawal agreement protocol this week. I have to say I always thought that was unlikely. I figure November, December is probably the best opportunity for a deal but this is a dynamic situation," he said as reported by Reuters.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a political high-wire act in trying to reach a deal that is acceptable to both the EU and lawmakers at home, where her minority government relies on the support of Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Highlighting the challenges she faces, the DUP's Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson on Monday warned it was "probably inevitable" Britain would leave the EU with no deal. "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," he told the Belfast Newsletter, according to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
Sunday's talks ended without a breakthrough on the crucial issue of trade to and from Northern Ireland, which has emerged as a possible deal-breaker and even a threat to May's leadership.
London, Dublin and Brussels all say they want no checks imposed on the land border between EU member Ireland and British province Northern Ireland, but the problem persists of how to square that aim with Britain's decision to leave the European single market and the customs union.Britain has proposed sticking with EU customs rules after Brexit as a fallback option to keep the border open, until a wider trade deal is agreed that avoids the need for frontier checks.
The EU's suggestion would see Northern Ireland remain aligned with Brussels' rules, thus varying from the rest of the United Kingdom, which is unacceptable to the DUP.
The British side suggested the talks broke down on Sunday because the EU negotiators were seeking further assurances on how to avoid checks on the land border. A government source told AFP that the EU is now asking for a second backstop to be put in place, very similar to their earlier proposal involving just Northern Ireland, in case the British version is not ready in time.