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Theresa May’s Salzburg humiliation increases chance of no-deal Brexit

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theresa may donald tusk brexit chequers
Theresa
May

Getty

LONDON — Thursday’s Salzburg summit was billed as a chance
for Theresa May to gather warm words of support about her Brexit
plans from European counterparts. It ended in abject humiliation
for the UK prime minister as a succession of EU leaders queued up
to slam her proposals as unworkable and her approach as
uncompromising.

And so a week that was supposed to move the UK and EU closer
towards a deal ends with the prospect of no deal looking likelier
than ever. What happened?

The EU’s bid to bolster May’s premiership actually began a day
before the summit. European diplomats and leaders had, for weeks,
been briefing that they would use the summit as an opportunity to
provide words of support for the PM. Doing so, they reasoned,
would help May bolster support for a deal with her political
opponents — many of whom are in her own
party — back home in Westminster.

Keen to address British concerns over the EU’s “backstop”
proposals for the Irish border, chief negotiator Michel Barnier
suggested a “new, improved” proposal and made assurances that the
EU had no intention of breaking up the UK.

The new backstop wouldn’t, in reality, be very different in
substance. But the EU’s plan was instead to stretch warm words
and goodwill as far as it could go to generate some good
headlines.

But May had her own political calculation to make, with one eye
on next week’s Conservative conference where she will attempt to
see off threats from hardline Brexiteers in her own party who
have openly discussed the prospect of challenging her leadership.

May bluntly dismissed Barnier’s backstop proposals and reports
emerged that EU leaders were hugely irritated before the summit
had even started. It got worse from there. A
Business Insider report
that UK trade secretary Liam Fox was
planning to water down EU regulations after Brexit caused outrage
among EU27 leaders and intransigence on both sides of
negotiations over the Irish border resulted in a day of discord
and tension when it had been billed as one of co-operation and
dealmaking. 

Perhaps the most ominous sign for May came when Donald Tusk — who
had previously welcomed her Chequers plans as a “positive
evolution” — told reporters that her proposed new economic
partnership with the EU “will not work.”


Theresa May Emmanuel MacronWPA
Pool / Pool / Getty

French president Emmanuel Macron piled on May’s proposals,
warning: “We all agreed on this today, the proposals in their
current state are not acceptable, especially on the economic side
of it. The Chequers plan cannot be take it or leave it.”

A summit which her advisers had long-strategised as a chance to
move closer to a deal had ended in disaster.

Back home on Friday, May reacted with a chest-beating
speech, warning that the EU must show “respect” to the UK in
negotiations and suggesting she would “never” sign up to plans
which risked the break up of the UK. She admitted, for the first
time, that talks were at an “impasse”.

Brussels reacted with a collective shrug. “What did she say
that was new?” a source close to a senior EU official said.

What next?

The blunt truth is that the UK and EU have failed to come
anywhere close to an agreement on Irish border issue, which
remains the biggest sticking point in negotiations.

The EU’s approach seems to have reached the end of the road.
Barnier has spoken at length about “de-dramatising” the Irish
backstop issue, which would essentially keep Northern Ireland
within the EU single market and customs union.

But May has rejected all suggestions of a re-modelled backstop
(an agreement which she signed up to in December) and the EU has
rejected her own proposal, warning that it would threaten the
integrity of the European single market.

“With just four weeks until a hoped-for final deal and with the
issue of the Irish border still deadlocked, the chances of a
no-deal Brexit in March have risen further over the past 48
hours,” said James Stewart, KPMG’s head of Brexit analysis. May’s
statement on Friday that talks had reached an “impasse” only
underlines that danger.

While the UK and EU both maintain that a deal is the most likely
outcome, neither side has any intention of fundamentally shifting
their current position on the Irish border. Too much is at stake.
In that context, the prospect of a no-deal Brexit is becoming
likelier by the day.

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