SALZBURG, Austria (Reuters) - EU leaders lined up on Thursday to tell Theresa May she needs to give guarantees on the Irish border before they will grant her the Brexit deal the prime minister wants to avoid Britain crashing out of the bloc in March.
On a second day of summitry in Austria, May’s European Union peers rammed home their message on her plea for them to ease up on a “backstop” plan dealing with the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU member state Ireland.
The backstop would keep Northern Ireland under EU economic oversight if London and Brussels cannot agree a trade pact to keep UK-EU borders open after a transition period ends in 2020 — an idea that May and a small party in the province that props up her minority government oppose.
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“We have very clear principles regarding the integrity of the single market and regarding precisely the Irish border,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the summit in Salzburg. “We need a UK proposal precisely preserving this backstop in the framework of a withdrawal agreement.”
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar had his own early morning meeting with May, after she had asked the summit over dinner the previous night not to ask her effectively to divide the United Kingdom. But Varadkar warned that Dublin was gearing up for the talks to collapse without a deal if London refuses to budge.
“We’re ready for that eventuality, should it occur. But I think we need to double our efforts over the next couple of weeks to make sure that we have a deal,” he said.
Leaders had listened politely to May for a few minutes around the summit dinner table, laid in the Salzburg theater used in the finale of the film “The Sound of Music”.
After dining on Wiener Schnitzel and wrangling over Europe’s migrant problem, May was given the floor and tried to win over her 27 peers by asking them what they would do if they were asked to agree a “legal separation” of their countries.
She maintains that the backstop would divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom in terms of customs if it were ever necessary to invoke it — even though both sides say they are determined to keep all their borders open to trade.
Maintaining a united front that refuses to let May bypass the talks run by EU negotiator Michel Barnier, the 27 leaders did not respond to her. They discussed the issue among themselves over lunch on Thursday, following a briefing from EU negotiator Michel Barnier.
Barnier hopes the Salzburg summit can set the process on to a countdown to a deal in two months — diplomats said leaders agreed to hold their diaries for a possible final Brexit summit in Brussels on the weekend of Nov. 17-18.
However, French officials questioned the need to rush to set such a target date and others involved are bracing for May to haggle down to the wire — some time around the year’s end. That could help her sell any deal back home as the best she could get without risking ending up with no deal at all, come March.
Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, Alastair Macdonald and Francois Murphy; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Lisa Shumaker; editing by David Stamp
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