LUXEMBOURG (AP) — Britain and the European were still both refusing to blink Monday over the question of the Irish border in Brexit talks — only two days ahead of a summit once seen as the moment when they would have to reach deal on Britain’s divorce from the bloc.
A flurry of diplomatic meetings over the weekend had raised hopes for a Brexit agreement, but they were derailed by the issue that has dogged the talks for months — how to ensure that no hard border is created between the EU’s Ireland and Britain’s Northern Ireland once Brexit happens on March 29.
The EU has proposed a “backstop” solution that would keep Northern Ireland in a customs union to avoid a hard border between it and Ireland if no other solution can be found. But British Prime Minister Theresa May says that would create “a border in the Irish Sea” and she won’t accept it.
Britain is proposing instead to keep all of the U.K. in a customs union with the bloc — but only temporarily. Tying Britain to the EU on customs would limit the U.K.’s power to strike new trade deals around the world — a key goal of those who voted to leave the EU.
“I need to be able to look the British people in the eye and say this ‘backstop’ is a temporary solution,” May told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Monday.
Insisting that a Brexit divorce deal was “achievable,” May said the border dispute should not “derail the prospects of a good deal and leave us with the no-deal outcome that no one wants.”
“I do not believe the EU and the UK are far apart,” she said.
May is under intense pressure from her Conservative Party and its parliamentary allies not to give any more ground in Brexit negotiations.
May’s political allies in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party, stand ready to scuttle a Brexit deal over the Irish border issue. DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said “it is probably inevitable that we will end up with a no-deal scenario” over Brexit.
The Irish border is an acutely sensitive issue, with some fearing any return to customs checks and other controls could revive tensions between Northern Ireland’s Irish Catholic community and its British Protestant one. More than 3,700 people were killed in Northern Ireland amid 30 years of violence between the two groups and Britain, which ended with a 1998 peace deal.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the delays were frustrating, and suggested that May was reneging on part of Britain’s commitment, made in December, to ensure that there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.
He said that a backstop “cannot be time-limited.”
“Nobody wants to ever trigger the backstop, but it needs to be there as an insurance mechanism to calm nerves that we’re not going to see physical border infrastructure re-emerging,” Coveney said.
The border impasse makes it is almost impossible that EU leaders will reach a Brexit deal at their summit, which begins Wednesday. The British and EU parliaments need to approve any deal, a process that could take months ahead of Britain’s official exit.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps the strongest voice in the EU, insisted Monday that May should not count on the EU to blink first for fear of losing valuable business. Merkel said Germany wants an orderly departure of Britain from the bloc “but not at any price.”
EU negotiators and leaders have said that Britain should not seek to cherry-pick the best parts of staying in the EU without the costs and responsibilities.
“We must not allow our single market, which is really our competitive advantage, to be destroyed by such a withdrawal,” Merkel said told Germany’s main exporters’ association. “And if it doesn’t work out this week, we must continue negotiating, that is clear — but time is pressing.”
If Britain leaves the EU without an agreement on future relations, there could be chaos — tariffs would go up on trade, airlines could no longer have permits to fly between the two regions, and freight could be lined up for miles at border crossings as customs checks are restored overnight.
The EU has said it is willing to call an extra meeting in November if needed to seal a deal, but only if there was decisive progress this week.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Monday that “I figure November or December is the best opportunity for a deal.”
“This is a dynamic situation,” he said.
As the chances of Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal rise, so do calls from pro-EU campaigners in Britain for a new referendum — dubbed a “People’s Vote” — on whether to accept a divorce deal or stay in the bloc.
Several opposition lawmakers, and even a few Conservatives, stood in Parliament Monday to call for a new Brexit referendum.
“We had a people’s vote,” May replied. “It was called the referendum and the people voted to leave.”
Lawless reported from London. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.