Daniel Boffey and Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Thu 7 Feb 2019 19.42 GMT, The Guardian
May and Juncker hold strained talks as EU examines technical aspects of Irish border
The Brexit negotiations are being pushed to the brink by Theresa May and the EU, with any last-minute offer by Brussels on the Irish backstop expected to be put to MPs just days before the UK is due to leave.
In strained talks on Thursday, during which Donald Tusk suggested that Jeremy Corbyn’s plan could help resolve the Brexit crisis, Theresa May and the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, agreed to hold the next face-to-face talks by the end of February.
That move cuts deep into the remaining time, piling pressure on the British parliament to then accept what emerges or face a no-deal scenario.
It is understood that EU officials are looking at offering May a detailed plan of what a potential technological solution to the Irish border might look like, which could be included in the legally non-binding political declaration on the future trade deal.
The blueprint would pinpoint the problem areas and commit to breaching the technical gaps where possible to offer an alternative to the customs union envisaged in the withdrawal agreement’s Irish backstop.
But officials believe it is increasingly likely that any renegotiated deal will only be put to the Commons at the end of March, necessitating even then an extension of the article 50 negotiating period to get legislation through parliament.
On Thursday the German finance commissioner, Günther Hermann Oettinger, suggested the chance of a no-deal Brexit was now as high as 60%.
“If the British side asks for an extension of two or three months and there are reasons for that, I think there’s a good chance that the member states would accept that unanimously,” he said. “But in the eight or 12 weeks there needs to be the possibility of achieving progress and that there must be a withdrawal agreement at the end of that.”
The prime minister’s failure during her meetings in Brussels with EU leaders on Thursday to go beyond her previous suggestions of a time limit and unilateral exit mechanism on the Irish backstop has confirmed fears that the deal’s ratification will go to the wire.