Britain’s Brexit negotiators headed back to Brussels on Tuesday vowing to “get a deal over the line” as they seek EU support to break the stalemate in London before this month’s divorce deadline.
The sitdown comes after EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said on Saturday that the European Union was ready to give further guarantees to help push a troubled divorce deal through the British parliament.
He also suggested European leaders would be amenable to a short “technical” delay in Britain’s departure from the bloc scheduled for March 29, to give parliament time to formally ratify a final divorce deal.
With just 24 days to go until Britain is set to leave the EU, UK attorney general Geoffrey Cox and Brexit minister Stephen Barclay will meet Barnier for talks due to start at 1700 (1600 GMT).
“We are determined to get a deal over the line and deliver on Brexit,” Barclay tweeted as he and Cox, the government’s top lawyer, departed for Brussels.
Barnier’s small overture to Britain has raised some hopes that both sides can find a solution, including to the so-called “backstop” plan for the Irish border, a major sticking point for pro-Brexit MPs.
“We’re now at a particularly critical stage in these negotiations,” said a spokesman for British Prime Minister Theresa May on Monday.
‘Running the show’
Cox’s presence is seen as central to the meeting, as he will ultimately offer a legal opinion on the Brexit deal and the Irish backstop that could determine whether key MPs in the British parliament will approve the accord.
Earlier unfavourable advice by Cox, warning that the backstop may prove permanent, was viewed as a contributing factor in the defeat of May’s deal by MPs in January.
“Cox is running the show,” a senior EU source told AFP.
“We are trying to find a junction between our positions and we are not there yet,” the source added.
EU leaders insist the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened, and talks in Brussels are focused on drafting a separate document to placate doubters in London.
Also raising hopes are the softening positions of several hardline Brexit supporters in May’s Conservative party who have dropped their demand that changes to the backstop be made to the withdrawal treaty itself.
But most of them continue to press for a time limit or exit clause to the backstop. They have also set up their own team of lawyers to scrutinise anything that Cox brings back from Brussels.
“Many Tories who dislike May’s deal are reluctantly coming round to the idea of voting for it,” said Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, a former UK official.
Cox will likely “reverse his previous legal advice that the UK could be trapped ‘indefinitely’ in the backstop,” Rahman predicted.
In 2017, Britain invoked Article 50 of EU law, triggering a two-year countdown to Brexit that ends at 11pm (2300 GMT) on March 29.
Both sides are furiously trying to steer away from a dreaded “no-deal” divorce that could wreak havoc on global markets and create border chaos.
The Bank of England warned Tuesday that Europe’s financial system faced “potential risks” to its stability arising from a no-deal Brexit.
The bank said businesses and households across Britain and the EU were vulnerable.
Given the risks, British MPs last week agreed to give May more time to seek changes from Brussels, but if she cannot get her deal passed by March 12, she has agreed to let parliament vote for a Brexit delay.