Theresa May says Brexit negotiations always likely to get tougher at end

British PM says she wants to explore solutions to backstop issue which is blocking deal

British prime minister Theresa May has described the European Union’s proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop as unacceptable but did not deny reports she agreed with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar that the backstop should be temporary but not time-limited.

Speaking at the end of an European Council meeting in Brussels, Ms May said Brexit negotiations were always likely to get tougher towards the end and that the two sides were still working through difficult issues.

“Crucial among those is this issue of the Northern Ireland backstop and ensuring that we can provide for a solution which is not the solution that was proposed by the European Union initially, which would have effectively carved Northern Ireland away from the rest of the United Kingdom,” she said.


“That’s unacceptable to the UK government. I think it would be unacceptable to any UK government. So on that issue further solutions have been put forward. But what we want to do is to work to get through that so we can actually get to the deal that I think will be good for the British people.”


After a months-long standoff over the backstop, British sources say EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s negotiating taskforce have shown a willingness to engage with Britain’s proposal for a customs backstop that would apply to the whole of the UK. Ms May has angered Conservative Brexiteers by saying she was considering a proposal to extend the post-Brexit transition by a year.

Blocking progress

Ms May said she was not proposing such an extension but wanted to explore solutions to the issue of the backstop which was blocking progress towards an overall Brexit deal.

“What we are doing is working to ensure we have a solution to the backstop issue in Northern Ireland which is currently a blockage to completing the deal that enables us to get on with completing a deal that delivers on the vote of the British people and is good for the future of the UK,” she said.

The other 27 leaders decided that insufficient progress had been made in Brexit negotiations to justify convening a special summit next month. But Ms May said they shared her sense of urgency about resolving the outstanding issues, particularly surrounding the backstop.

“We are intensifying the work on these issues that remain and we’re very clear. And what I’ve had from leaders around the table over the last hours since I arrived in Brussels yesterday is a very real sense that people want that deal to be done,” she said on Thursday.

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times