‘Very good progress’ in Brussels as Brexit talks go to the wire

May and Juncker to meet again on Saturday in effort to agree contentious political declaration

British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker meet to discuss Brexit draft agreements  in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

British prime minister Theresa May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker meet to discuss Brexit draft agreements in Brussels on Wednesday. Photograph: Yves Herman/Reuters

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Theresa May will return to Brussels on Saturday for further talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker after a meeting on Wednesday failed to finalise a crucial draft joint political declaration on the EU-UK future relationship

“Very good progress” was made at Wednesday’s meeting, the commission said in a statement, on a document that is expected to be approved alongside the withdrawal agreement at an EU summit on Sunday. Work was continuing, the commission said, with Mrs May adding later that there were “some further issues that need resolution”.

Mrs May arrived at about 5.30pm local time and shook hands with Mr Juncker, refusing to answer shouted questions, and after the meeting disappeared without comment. Commission officials were saying next to nothing.

All sides appeared to accept that the withdrawal agreement (WA) cannot be reopened and that Sunday’s summit will effectively just rubber-stamp it. Mrs May acknowledged as much in the Commons on Wednesday, while German chancellor Angela Merkel told the Bundestag there was no question of renegotiating the deal now.

Mrs May’s focus on Wednesday night was on the final tweaking of the declaration, which she hopes to sell to her sceptics as providing the reassurances and safeguards they are looking for and believe are lacking in the WA.

Border language

On Northern Ireland, the political declaration is now expected to include language on the Border that will reflect Mrs May’s promise to explore technological solutions as an alternative to the backstop. The withdrawal agreement, in both the draft produced in March and in its final form, allows for “alternative arrangements” to ensure that the Border remains open. London is playing up the formula.

But she also gave a new version in the Commons on Wednesday of how the backstop could be creatively interpreted – the government, she said, could agree to keep the entire UK aligned with EU regulations rather than allowing Northern Ireland to diverge from Great Britain.

“If we were in the situation where the backstop had to be in place for a matter of months, for example, it would be right for the United Kingdom to give the commitment that we would not be looking to diverge from regulations during that period and that we would ensure that we kept that free access for the goods from Northern Ireland coming into Great Britain, as we have committed in the withdrawal agreement . . . and as we had committed previously. That will of course be a decision for us here,” she said.

Nature abhors a vacuum and so Brussels was swirling with rumours and talk of “serious” blockages on the road to agreement on the declaration. Diplomats were sceptical of how serious such threats are.

Gibraltar

Spain has threatened to veto the deal if its concerns on Gibraltar are not met. And there are still reported to be French and other objections to the omission in the declaration of commitments to access to UK fishing waters and what some see as a dilution of “level-playing field” guarantees in the trade section.

One senior diplomat said of the Spanish problem that “It should be all right on the day. An issue like this will have to be sorted beforehand.”

Berlin weighed in to give the deadlocked discussion a kick forward, suggesting that a deal on the declaration needed to be finalised on Thursday, in time for capitals to consider it ahead of Sunday, or Dr Merkel might not attend the summit. After Mrs May’s statement on Wednesday night that timetable will not be met.

But it was a clear message to Spain and others obstructing the deal that they should not be jeopardising the agreement and that there is limited sympathy for their stance

It also appeared to be a message to London that any talk of negotiations on Sunday is out – the summit will be a formal approval of both documents and little more. Downing Street has been briefing unofficially that Mrs May hopes to engage in negotiations. Not if Dr Merkel has her way.

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