Theresa May and the Irish government have failed to reach a deal on the crucial Brexit issue of the Northern Ireland border ahead of a crunch meeting on Monday lunchtime with the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker.
Despite intense efforts over the weekend to agree a proposal on how to avoid a hard border in Ireland, Irish officials revealed at midnight on Sunday that “there is still a way to go” to achieve a meeting of minds on the issue.
“The Irish government remains hopeful – but at this stage it is very difficult to make a prediction,” said an official.
The failure to seal a deal threatens to delay the progression of the Brexit negotiations to the second phase covering trade and the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
May will meet Juncker with the UK’s final offer on the three main issues in the first round of Brexit talks – the Irish border, citizens’ rights and the financial settlement.
Talks could continue into Wednesday when the European commissioners are due to meet to discuss their recommendation to European leaders on whether “sufficient progress” has been achieved to move talks on to trade and transition arrangements.
May had been given the deadline of Monday 4 December to table the offers before a European council summit on 14 December, when EU leaders will decide if “sufficient progress” has been made to proceed to the next phase.
But although the money and citizens’ rights issues have been mostly resolved, the future arrangement with Ireland has remained a significant obstacle because the British government has yet to offer a firm commitment explaining how it will guarantee avoiding a return to a hard border after Brexit.
For Ireland, and the EU27 as a whole, the problem has become a potential dealbreaker, with Dublin given an effective veto on progress of talks.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister Simon Coveney had said on Sunday morning that Ireland had “no desire” to be a roadblock to progress but said the country wants “concrete” proposals on how a hard border with customs and people checks would be avoided.
Coveney told the broadcaster RTE that Monday was “undoubtedly a very big day in the context of Brexit negotiations” and that “certainly the hope is that those meetings will result in a momentum that can be carried into the leaders’ summit”.
Chances of a deal with British officials had been put at 50:50 on Sunday afternoon, but at midnight Brussels time, officials said an agreement had not been reached.
“Contacts continue at official level in order to reach agreement. There is still a way to go,” said an Irish official. “There must be clarity on the need to avoid regulatory divergence which would lead to the re-emergence of a border.
“A positive outcome to the talks between UK PM May and President Tusk and President Juncker will be very important if we are to make the progress necessary before the European Council,” the Irish official added.
A special meeting of the Irish cabinet has been called for Monday morning in which ministers will get an update.
In London, a government spokesman said: “With plenty of discussions still to go, Monday will be an important staging post on the road to the crucial December council.”
Two hours before Monday’s lunch with May, Juncker is to join the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, along with members of the chamber’s Brexit steering committee, to discuss outstanding issues on the future rights of EU citizens after the UK leaves the bloc.
Although this issue is largely resolved, Juncker requested the meeting to refresh himself on the problems MEPs continue to have with the progress on citizens’ rights, including British resistance to cementing a role for the European court of justice (ECJ) in protecting the status of EU nationals living in Britain.
Beyond the issue of the ECJ, the parliament also wants the UK to drop any charges for EU nationals when they apply for settled status post-Brexit.
They are also insistent that future family members of those living in the UK today should be covered by whatever benefits are dispensed by the withdrawal agreement. The parliament must ratify any treaty on Britain’s withdrawal from the EU before Brexit in March 2019.
May is coming under strong pressure from Tory Brexiters unhappy with some of the compromises that she has already made in the process. Many of her MPs would want to see her abandon Brexit negotiations altogether if the EU summit in December rules against opening trade talks.
On Sunday, senior Conservative Brexiters set new red lines for May in the talks with the EU, significantly reducing her chances of getting a deal acceptable to the whole of her party.
The former cabinet ministers Iain Duncan Smith, Owen Paterson, Nigel Lawson and John Redwood said it would be unacceptable for the ECJ to have any jurisdiction over the UK during the planned two-year transition after Brexit.
Duncan Smith set out his objections in an article in the Sunday Telegraph in which he said he particularly opposed a plan for the ECJ to have an ongoing role, beyond the transition, adjudicating on the rights of EU nationals in the UK.
Paterson, Lawson and Redwood, along with more than 30 other Brexiters, have signed a letter coordinated by the group Leave Means Leave listing seven conditions they say should apply before the UK makes any divorce payment to the EU.
But on Sunday, in a message to Tory Brexiters, the health secretary Jeremy Hunt suggested that if May were brought down, Brexit might not happen. He said: “If we don’t back Theresa May, we will have no Brexit.”
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