Accessibility links

Breaking News

UK PM May and Her Brexit Vision Get Little Sympathy From EU

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May delivers a speech at the Waterfront Hall in Belfast, Northern Ireland, July 20, 2018.

Embattled British Prime Minister Theresa May found little sympathy Friday from the European Union's 27 other nations in her quest for more flexibility as the time to negotiate an amicable Brexit divorce dwindles down.

May used a speech Friday in Northern Ireland to urge EU negotiators to be more open-minded on how to solve the Irish border issue, a key sticking point in talks on Britain's exit from the bloc, which is expected in March.

She is vehemently opposed to any proposal that would keep Northern Ireland inside a customs union with the EU while the rest of the U.K. leaves. She said no prime minister could accept an arrangement that threatened the unity of the United Kingdom and imposed a sea border between Northern Ireland and the U.K.

May is also hoping the EU negotiating team will respond positively to plans her government spelled out last week that call for a "common rule book" to govern trade in goods but not services between Britain and the EU after Brexit.

But EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said again there can be no cherry-picking when it comes to being in the EU's vast single market, where all trade comes under the same rule book.

Barnier underscored the importance of settling the Irish border and said "we cannot afford to lose time on this issue and this is why we have invited the U.K. to work on the backstop next week."

The EU has long complained that May has delayed the Brexit negotiations because internal bickering within her Conservative Party has brought her government to brink of chaos. Britain and the EU need to agree upon a divorce plan this fall so the EU Parliament and legislatures in EU nations can approve it before Britain leaves.

May says her proposal — to treat trade in goods and services differently — would keep "frictionless" trade and make a border between the Republic of Ireland — an EU member — and Northern Ireland unnecessary. She argued that it would also protect the gains of the Good Friday peace accord signed 20 years ago that brought the region's deadly political clashes to an end.

"In the Northern Ireland of today, where a seamless border enables unprecedented levels of trade and cooperation North and South, any form of infrastructure at the border is an alien concept," May said.

The prime minister said a seamless border is "the foundation stone" of the peace agreement that ended decades of violence between Protestants and Catholics as well as between Britain and those wanting to unite Ireland with Northern Ireland. She said that undermining it would be a betrayal.

EU nations just as steadfastly insist on maintaining the spirit of the Good Friday agreement and also vehemently oppose any hard border on the island.

EU leaders have long said Britain cannot "cherry pick" which aspects of its relationship with the EU it wishes to keep in place after Brexit. The new proposals by May's government are seen by some in the EU as doing just that.