Irish border highlights differences that remain between Britain, EU on Brexit deal

Britain and its European Union partners failed on Thursday to secure a breakthrough in Brexit talks largely because of seemingly intractable divisions over the best way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

May insists Britain prepared to leave EU with no deal as her Chequers plan gets cool reception

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar attend a bilateral meeting Thursday in Salzburg, Austria. Varadkar is adamant on avoiding new barriers to the movement of goods and people in the post-Brexit landscape. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

Britain and its European Union partners failed on Thursday to secure a breakthrough in Brexit talks largely because of seemingly intractable divisions over the best way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

With Britain's departure from the EU looming — March 29 — there are growing concerns that a deal on the post-Brexit relationship may not be cobbled together in time to ensure a smooth and orderly British exit.

All leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, are desperate to solve the biggest Brexit riddle — how to keep goods moving freely between Northern Ireland in the U.K. and EU member state Ireland.

May rejected the sense that negotiations were falling apart when pressed by reporters at a news conference as the summit in Austria.

"I've always said these negotiations were going to be tough," she said.

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, says parts of May's Chequers proposal would undermine the 27 EU members. (Kerstin Joensson/Associated Press)

If an agreement is to be sealed by March 29, May and her EU partners must find an acceptable answer in coming weeks so parliaments have enough time to ratify the agreement.

'Time is running short'

They've spent two days in Salzburg trying to do just that, but with no clear solution in sight, the sides have tried to ramp up pressure on each other. Each side is urging the other to compromise while the EU issues constant warnings to Britain about the Brexit clock ticking.

"Time is running short," Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters. "We want to avoid a no-deal Brexit, but we are preparing for that. We are hiring extra staff and officials, bringing in IT systems. We are ready for that eventuality, should it occur."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed, saying "substantial progress" must be made on Brexit when the parties meet on Oct. 18 in Brussels, with a view to wrapping up a deal in November.

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, third left, is among several officials shown on May 12, 2017, surveying the area along the Irish border close to Castleblayney, Ireland. (Peter Morrison/Associated Press)

"We have come a long way already on the exit agreement ... we still have a lot of work to do on the future relationship," she said.

Donald Tusk, EU Council president, said key parts of the British proposals "will not work." 

Any Brexit deal will include a withdrawal agreement and transition period to smooth Britain's exit from the bloc.

That period is expected to last until the end of 2020, but if there is no deal to ensure no hard border in Ireland and a political declaration outlining future relations, then there will be no so-called transition period. That could would lead to Britain crashing out of the EU on Brexit day, a development that in theory could see flights parked and trade between the two sides grind to a halt.

For Ireland, it's important not to undermine the hard-won peace after decades of sectarian tensions in neighbouring Northern Ireland.

"What we want to avoid is any new barriers to the movement of goods, any new barriers to trade, any new barriers to the movement of people," Varadkar said.

Chequers or bust, May says

Over dinner in Salzburg on Wednesday evening, May told the other leaders that Britain would not delay Brexit or hold a second referendum. She insisted her proposals — the so-called Chequers plan — is the only option left.

Under Chequers, Britain would basically remain a member of the EU's single market for goods and abide by EU rules governing that market. EU leaders say that is "cherry picking" on the part of Britain, which would be able to go its own way in services and on other issues such as the freedom of movement of labour.

May was emphatic there would be no second referendum in Britain despite the difficulty of the negotiations and economic questions the country faces if a deal isn't reached with the EU. (Kerstin Joensson)

After the summit, May repeated her stance that Chequers was "the only credible and negotiable plan on the table that delivers no hard border in Northern Ireland and also delivers on the vote of the British people."

Admitting "concerns have been raised," May said, "I'm negotiating to deliver on what the British people voted for in the referendum."

She reiterated that Britain was prepared for a no-deal Brexit.

Tusk said of the Chequers proposals that "the suggested framework for co-operation will not work, not least because it risks undermining the single market."  

Many lawmakers in May's ruling Conservative Party have voiced strong objections to her Brexit proposals, raising suggestions that even if she strikes a deal with EU leaders, the agreement would be rejected.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said on Thursday the government was confident Parliament would back a Brexit deal agreed by May and the EU.

"We are confident if we can get the support of the European Union, ultimately it would get through Parliament," Hunt told the BBC. He also said there would be no second plebiscite on Brexit.

"People will be very angry indeed if we had a second referendum and it's certainly not the government's policy," he said.

May was also emphatic in Salzburg: "There has been a vote of the people. It took place in June of 2016."

Amid reports that May had taken a tough line on the negotiations, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said Thursday she had been "interesting" and "polite."

With files from CBC News and Reuters