The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told AFP on Monday that negotiations to break a deadlock on a deal to leave the bloc are now between British Prime Minister Theresa May and members of her parliament.
“We held talks over the weekend and the negotiations now are between the government in London and the parliament in London,” Barnier said as he arrived at EU headquarters in Brussels to discuss Britain’s exit from the bloc with envoys from the other 27 member states.
Hopes had been high that May would come to Brussels to finalise a deal with the EU on Monday, but a European source these plans had been shelved due to a lack of progress.
With time running out, May had hoped for a signal from Brussels to help get a Brexit deal over the line in time for Britain’s looming departure from the European Union — scheduled for March 29.
Instead, she spoke to European Commission chief Jean-Claude Junkcer late Sunday by phone, with both sides agreeing to stay in touch.
“No further meetings at political level are scheduled, but both sides will remain in close contact this week,” Juncker’s spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.
“We are committed to ratifying this deal before March 29. It is now for the House of Commons to take an important set of decisions this week,” he added.
British MPs overwhelmingly rejected the deal when it was first put to them in January — with many citing the controversial Irish “backstop” clause. A second parliamentary vote will take place on Tuesday.
The backstop would keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU in order to keep the land border between the British province of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland free-flowing.
A European source said the embattled May had failed to convince her cabinet over the weekend and that talks with the EU could go no further.
Barnier said his teams had offered all they could, including a last-minute proposal that Britain could leave the bloc’s customs union after the divorce.
But this offer would not include Northern Ireland, which infuriated Barnier’s British counterparts who called it a “rerun of old arguments”.
The Europeans have also proposed to sign a legally backed “joint interpretative document” of the Irish backstop.
This would reiterate ways Britain could attempt to suspend the backstop if London were to request a suspension of some of its obligations.
To assess the document, British MPs are awaiting the opinion of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the May government’s top lawyer who took a lead role in the negotiations with Barnier last week.