After the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, flew to Brussels on Sunday for talks, it has emerged that a deal is being held up by renewed differences on the so-called backstop arrangement insisted on by the EU to prevent a hard Irish border.
However, the suggestion that the EU had surprised Downing Street by insisting that the Northern Ireland-specific backstop would need to stay in the withdrawal agreement has been met with scorn by diplomats in Brussels.
According to UK government sources, there is agreement that the EU’s backstop idea, which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union and single market ahead of a workable trade deal, should apply to the whole of the UK, as insisted on by Theresa May.
However, the sources say, Brussels is arguing this solution has an extra insurance policy of an additional Northern Ireland-only “backstop to the backstop”, which if imposed would place a customs border in the Irish Sea, something May has rejected.
Any sign of the prime minister giving way on the issue would prompt fury from her Democratic Unionist party allies. Sammy Wilson, the DUP’s Brexit spokesman, said it was almost inevitable the UK would end up with no deal.
He told the Belfast Newsletter: “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. So it is probably inevitable that we will end up with a no-deal scenario.”
EU negotiators had been open to introducing an EU-UK customs union, even on a temporary basis, which could supersede the backstop, in which Northern Ireland stays in the single market and the customs union as the rest of the country withdraws.
But diplomats noted that the prime minister had repeatedly committed to a “specific” solution for Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement that would give the Irish Republic the necessary assurance that a hard border could never be introduced with Northern Ireland.
“If this is somehow a surprise, people have either not been focusing or they have been negotiating in bad faith,” one diplomat said. “The prime minister agreed this three times. Once in the joint report, again in March and then in a specific letter to Donald Tusk [president of the European council].”
May had said in her letter to Tusk, which was demanded in March by the EU as part of an attempt to move the negotiations on, that she was committed to “specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland”, and would work on “a legal text for at least the ‘so-called backstop option’ set out” in December’s joint report, which first introduced the need for Northern Ireland alone to stay in the EU’s structures.
Raab had arrived in Brussels on Sunday unexpectedly, ahead of this week’s crunch leaders’ summit at which the EU has demanded “maximum progress” be made to allow the talks to develop.
He is understood to have told the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, that the volatility of UK politics meant a plan to strike an agreement on Monday on the backstop was not possible.
Ambassadors for the EU27 were subsequently told on Sunday night by Sabine Weyand, the bloc’s deputy chief negotiator, that the “Brits need more time”. “The problem is at the British end,” a diplomat said.
Speaking on Monday, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, rejected the idea of Labour helping May get a Brexit deal through parliament, saying his party would stick to its long-declared six tests for what constitutes a good Brexit.
On BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Starmer rejected the idea that if May gave way and she faced opposition in parliament from rebel Conservative MPs and the DUP, Labour should help push though a deal.
“At the moment we don’t even know what the proposal is that everybody has fallen out about over the weekend,” he said. “What we’re saying is that’s got to be published and that needs to be looked at and scrutinised by parliament.”
“This is politics around the cabinet table that’s holding the country back.”
Labour had sought to find a consensual solution beforehand but had been rebuffed, Starmer said: “Every time we have tried to involve parliament, the government said no. So now to come at the end of the exercise and say parliament has got to rubber-stamp whatever comes back, that really isn’t right.”
All negotiations between the EU and the UK have been put on hold. The prime minister has been invited to address the EU27 heads of state and government before a dinner on Wednesday night but she has yet to accept.
The impasse is set to prompt further calls from May’s Tory critics for her to abandon the entire backstop idea, and her wider Chequers plan.
In his regular column for the Daily Telegraph, the former foreign secretary Boris Johnson said the EU was “treating us with naked contempt”. He wrote: “Like some chessplayer triumphantly forking our king and our queen, the EU commission is offering the UK government what appears to be a binary choice. It is a choice between the breakup of this country, or the subjugation of this country, between separation or submission.”
But Claire Perry, May’s climate change minister, said Johnson and the former Brexit secretary David Davis, who called over the weekend for ministers to rebel against May, were using “playground language”.
Perry told Sky News: “This is the time for incredibly serious grownups to be round the negotiating table, and I am very confident that she will come back with a deal. It might not be this month, we’ve got this timing thing that we’ve put into our heads. But we will get a deal, and she’s the right person to get it.”