Theresa May has said the EU has agreed to discuss a UK-wide solution to the Irish border issue which has led to an impasse in Brexit negotiations.
The Prime Minister was addressing MPs in the House of Commons on the state of Brexit negotiations after talks over the weekend failed to produce the hoped-for breakthrough on the so-called “backstop” arrangements for Ireland.
Mrs May said that the UK had made substantial progress over negotiations, but that the thorny issue of the Irish border continued to be a sticking point.
Previously, the EU has demanded a solution which specifically commits Northern Ireland to remaining in the single market – something the PM has said she will not agree to.
Mrs May admitted today that, even if a UK-wide solution could be found, it was unlikely to be reached in the next few weeks which meant a ‘backstop to the backstop’ would likely be necessary.
She told MPs: “I continue to believe that a negotiated deal is the best outcome for the UK and for the European Union.
“I continue to believe that such a deal is achievable.
“And that is the spirit in which I will continue to work with our European partners.”
She added: ‘The EU says there is not time to work out the details of this UK-wide solution in the next few weeks. So even with the progress we have made the EU requires a backstop to the backstop, an insurance policy for the insurance policy.’
In response, Jeremy Corbyn branded Mrs May’s update ‘shambolic’, adding that she was putting her party before the country and was being held hostage by hardline Brexiteers on her own backbenches.
The impasse means that meetings between “sherpas” in Brussels have been cancelled, and UK Government ministers will have no withdrawal plan to approve at Cabinet on Tuesday, before Mrs May travels to the crunch European Council summit the following day.
European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “Despite intensive negotiations several key issues remain unresolved. I can say that no further negotiations are planned ahead of the European Council.”
The prime minister’s official spokesman said that “real progress” had been made on a number of issues and the Government was determined to press on with talks.
But he said that the EU continued to insist on the possibility of a carve-out for Northern Ireland which could see a customs border down the Irish Sea – something Mrs May has already said would be unacceptable to any British prime minister.
Britain is offering a temporary backstop arrangement under which the whole UK would remain in the EU customs area unless an open border in Ireland was secured by a broader trade agreement.
Discussions were said to have broken down after EU negotiators demanded a “backstop to the backstop”, under which Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union after the time-limited UK-wide arrangement came to an end.
Former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said talks were “entering the moment of crisis” and urged Mrs May to reject the EU’s offer and scrap the backstop.
“The EU is treating us with naked contempt … (offering) a choice between the break-up of this country or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission,” Mr Johnson told the Daily Telegraph.
Mrs May’s spokesman said that reports that a deal had been reached at official level on Sunday, only to break down when Brexit secretary Dominic Raab met EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, should be “taken with a pinch of salt”.
The DUP’s Westminster leader, Nigel Dodds, told the Telegraph: “One part of the UK cannot be left behind, bound to rules set in Brussels. The constitutional and economic consequences of such an approach would be catastrophic in the long run.”
Earlier, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said a “no deal scenario” was “probably inevitable”.
He told the Belfast News Letter: “Given the way in which the EU has behaved and the corner they’ve put Theresa May into, there’s no deal which I can see at present which will command a majority in the House of Commons.”