BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May and other EU leaders reiterated their confidence on Thursday that they could reach a Brexit deal. They had worked hard to overcome the hurdles that had brought the talks to a standstill just a few days ago.
Less than six months before Britain leaves the EU in its biggest political turn in more than 40 years, the two sides disagree on how to deal with their only land border between the British province of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
But while sentiment was more optimistic at a two-day summit in Brussels, there was little movement from both sides in solving the border problem. EU officials and diplomats said that May had offered nothing new to unlock the talks.
At the moment, however, both sides seemed happy to be making some solution to this problem a little further down.
"We all work together, we are intensifying work on these issues that still exist," May said after a two-day summit in Brussels for a press conference.
"What I've heard from executives … Since I arrived here yesterday in Brussels, it's a very real feeling that people want this deal to be made."
"I'm confident that we can achieve that. That's a good deal."
There was a marked change in tone since Prime Minister Prime Minister Dominic Raab left Brussels on Sunday after more than one-year Brexit talks on the border issue had failed.
The problem focuses on a so-called backstop ̵
In an attempt to spur the talks, May had previously signaled that she would consider a "transitional phase" for months after Britain left the EU in March. This criticism was referred to by their critics as treason the block was welcomed.
The extension of the transitional period could mean that, if a future partnership is not ready, a deterrent that has been unbearable for the British side will not have to be triggered. But even an extension would not remove the insistence of the EU that such a safeguard must be agreed to reach an agreement.
Such an expansion would be hard to sell for May as its overall strategy was widely criticized – Brexit activists accuse it of turning Britain into a vassal state, EU advocates say supply is the worst all worlds and others are increasingly frustrated by the talks.
A prominent Brexit supporter, conservative legislator Jacob Rees-Mogg, said Reuters The extension of the transition was "a bad and expensive idea". "No say about the budget or new laws, the epitome of the vassal state."
May also faces a rebellion by its parliamentary partner, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, which threatened to vote against its government's budget if it acknowledged the EU's demands on the backstop. They say the proposal would tear Northern Ireland out of the rest of the UK. Diane Dodds, DUP's EU legislator, said extension did not alleviate her party's fears. "All very well, but that does not change the actual change of the retention lock … So it does not raise any concerns, it does not provide reassurance."
The EU shows little signs that it is changing its position on the backstop, its leaders could offer little more than support in May that they too believed that an agreement could be reached. Diplomats say they hope that talks can start again seriously if and when the budget is passed in early November.
EU Council President Donald Tusk described the mood as much better than that at the last summit in Salzburg, which ended with sharpness. "What I feel today is that we are closer to the final solutions and the deal," he said at a press conference.
Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission President, said: "It will be done."
But the Northern Irish question still needs to be overcome. Mai expressed the hope that it could be negotiated by the two sides to agree on a close future partnership that would ensure that borders ran as smoothly as possible.
EU leaders were more cautious.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar summed up that "major gaps exist between the two sides, both in terms of the shape of future relations and the Northern Ireland and Ireland Protocol and backstop."
Additional coverage by Philip Blenkinsop, Michel Rose, Gabriela Baczynska and Robin Emmott in Brussels and William James, Kylie Maclellan and Andrew MacAskill in London, Conor Humphries in Dublin; Editing by Alastair Macdonald and Alison Williams