Brexit talks resume but sides as far apart as ever

British representatives’ focus on provision may cause a no-deal Brexit, EU officials fear

Brexit talks resumed in Brussels on Monday night with a British focus almost entirely on legal language to put a time limit on the Irish backstop.

But as the clock to British departure ran down to 40 days, EU officials and diplomats expressed increasing concern that London’s focus on the backstop – the insurance policy that guarantees an open border on the island of Ireland – made a deal ever more unlikely.

British prime minister Theresa May arrives in Brussels on Wednesday for talks with European Commission president Jean Claude Juncker, while her Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay will simultaneously resume his discussions with EU officials.

Mr Barclay told journalists that he and EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had a "positive" meeting on Monday, and suggested that its overrun was testimony to the constructive engagement of both sides.


He said they had discussed the backstop, with British attorney general Geoffrey Cox, who was also present, exploring legal means to reconcile what British sources described as the gap between the Irish protocol's description of the backstop as "temporary" and its "indefinite" legal effect.

They also discussed the “Malthouse compromise”, a refashioned version of already-rejected British proposals for a technological solution to the Border.

After also meeting Mr Barnier , Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney insisted they had agreed that the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, reached in November, was not going to be reopened. Mrs May wants the EU to agree to changes to the backstop element of the deal.

Mr Coveney said he did not believe it would be possible to resolve the backstop issue with legally binding language outside the Withdrawal Agreement, as reportedly suggested by Mr Cox: “That is essentially saying that you take the backstop out of the Withdrawal Agreement. That’s not going to happen ...”

It remains unclear, however, whether Mr Cox, seen as a key persuader of backbenchers for Mrs May, perceives the reopening of the agreement as necessary.  Such issues and potential legal language will be explored in the discussions on Wednesday.

Raise expectations

Mr Coveney said it was “important the UK doesn’t raise expectations in Westminster that there is a redrafting of the Withdrawal Agreement possible”.

Echoing sentiments widely heard in Brussels, he pointed to what is seen in Brussels as the only viable way of forging a Brexit deal capable of winning both a House of Commons majority and EU approval, namely a British embrace of proposals from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. These involve the UK remaining in the customs union and large parts of the single market.

“The EU is very open to that solution if the UK will actually pursue it,” he said. “But the onus has to be on London ... the logjam and problems are in London and the solutions have to come out of London.”

In London Mr Corbyn faces new problems of his own as seven Labour MPs announced their defection from the party to form a new independent group. It is the largest exodus from any British parliamentary party since the establishment of the Social Democratic Party in 1981.

The seven have been long-time critics of Mr Corbyn, not least on his Brexit policy. And the government was facing further embarrassment with the announcement by Japanese carmaker Honda of the closure of its only British car plant, in Swindon, in 2022 with the loss of 3,500 jobs,.

Local conservative MP Justin Tomlinson insisted that "This is not Brexit-related. It is a reflection of the global market. They are seeking to consolidate production in Japan. "

Honda said it would not be providing any comment on the “speculation”.

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times