European officials warned Monday that Britain’s latest Brexit proposal cannot serve as a basis for a breakthrough before next week’s Brussels summit.
And with no draft deal on the table before the October 17 meeting, Britain and Europe will face either a chaotic breakup or yet another Brexit delay.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has insisted he will not ask to postpone Britain’s planned October 31 departure from the European Union.
But he may be forced to do so by a British law aimed at preventing a no-deal divorce, which would be potentially calamitous economically.
European negotiators are warning that time is running out.
Johnson’s envoy, senior diplomat David Frost, was in Brussels on Monday for more “technical talks”, and Brexit minister Stephen Barclay travelled to The Hague to meet Dutch officials.
Both heard that the latest British plans to impose alternative customs arrangements on Northern Ireland, to be reviewed every four years by the provincial assembly, are unlikely to convince.
“I think we all agree we need a workable solution now and not something based on untried and revokable arrangements that would be left to negotiation during the transition period,” EU spokeswoman Mina Andreeva said.
“As we have also recalled, the UK proposals presented last week do not meet at present the objectives of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” she said, referring to negotiating terms agreed in 2017.
“This is also the shared view of European Parliament, but also all member states,” she added.
‘More realism’ needed
Meanwhile, after a “frank and honest” discussion with Barclay, Dutch foreign minister Stef Blok said “more realism and clarity” would be needed from London if talks are to go much further.
Earlier, in an interview with Le Monde, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier warned that if London “does not come back with new proposals on the two serious problems we have indicated to them, I cannot see how we can move forward.”
Despite the divisions, Frost met with EU officials for technical talks on Monday. He plans to stay in Brussels to work up a legal text.
“They agreed to continue talks tomorrow,” a UK spokesman said.
“Following hours of discussions last week, the UK provided additional legal text today. This provided further technical detail on customs and goods regulations to further clarify how the UK’s proposals would operate.”
In London, junior Brexit minister James Duddridge told parliament he was “optimistic” that negotiations would begin in earnest, arguing: “Where there’s a will there’s a way.”
If there is no draft agreement by Friday, European officials warn, there will be no time to get member states to sign off on it before October 17-18, the last scheduled European summit before Brexit day.
Britain insists its offer represents significant concessions, and now the EU must show similar flexibility, but Brussels is adamant it will not agree to any plan that undermines its single market or leaves Ireland exposed.
On Sunday, Barclay suggested London could be willing to soften its position on Northern Ireland, describing last week’s suggestion as “a broad landing zone” rather than a final take-it-or-leave-it offer.
But during telephone talks with Johnson on Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron made it clear that the EU would decide by the end of this week whether a deal is possible.
Johnson wants Northern Ireland’s devolved assembly — which has been suspended for almost three years — to vote every four years on whether to maintain EU regulations or default to UK law.
The province would leave the EU customs union along with the rest of the UK, with checks on trade to rely on untried technological solutions away from the sensitive border.
Separately, British anti-Brexit campaigners failed to secure a court ruling forcing Johnson to seek a Brexit extension in the event of a no deal.
“We will obey the law and that we will leave on October 31,” Number 10 said. “The manner in which this policy is lawfully achieved is a matter for the government.”