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Theresa May tries to keep Brexit talks alive with a skeptical Europe

Prime Minister Theresa May responded to questions at a summit in Brussels Oct. 17. (Video: Reuters)
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LONDON — Brexit is seriously stuck.

Nobody really wants Britain to crash out of the European Union without a withdrawal deal, but time is running out and the sides have bogged down over the contentious issue of how to manage the Irish border. 

Prime Minister Theresa May traveled to Brussels on Wednesday and was given 30 minutes behind closed doors to make another appeal to her European counterparts.

What the Europeans wanted to hear was more compromise. Many of them suspect the British leader is pursuing a strategy of delay designed to push negotiations to the brink, at which point Europe would yield and the hardcore Brexiteers in the British Parliament would be hard-pressed not to accept May’s version of withdrawal, even if they despise it as a capitulation.

“The longer she leaves it, the easier it is for her to ram it through Parliament and say, ‘it’s my deal or no deal and you all know no deal will be catastrophic,’ ” said Catherine Barnard, professor of E.U. law at Cambridge University. 

Upon her arrival at the E.U. summit, May told reporters: “We have solved most of the issues in the withdrawal agreement. There is still the question of the Northern Irish backstop.”

The “backstop” refers to a commitment from both sides that even if Britain exits without a comprehensive deal, there will never be a hard border between Northern Ireland, which would leave as part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland, which will remain part of the E.U.

To ensure an open border — a stipulation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to 30 years of sectarian violence — European negotiators have proposed that Northern Ireland continue to trade as a member of Europe’s customs union.

Such an arrangement is anathema to unionists in Belfast and to May, who says it would cut Northern Ireland off from the United Kingdom.

May has proposed instead that the whole of the United Kingdom remain aligned with the customs union for a limited time. But that idea has been shot down by Europe’s chief negotiator, Ireland’s prime minister and members of her own party, who want the ability to do trade deals with the rest of the world. The Tory’s chief whip told May on Tuesday that Parliament would vote it down.

Nonetheless, when May addressed Parliament on Wednesday, she insisted that her compromise proposals were not dead.

May is also reportedly open to extending the Brexit “transition period” by a year — so instead of 21 months, as previously agreed, Britain would have 33 months, or until the end of 2021 to leave the bloc.

But European Parliament President Antonio Tajani said May did not offer “any substantial new element” in her Brussels appeal.

Afterward, she left the dinner so that leaders of the remaining 27 E.U. member states could discuss Britain’s fate among themselves.

The summit had been billed as a “moment of truth,” when a deal must be finalized to allow an orderly exit by Britain on March 29. But the moment of truth has been delayed. European leaders are now discussing another summit in November — or even December before the holidays — to secure a possible accord.

Like May, European leaders continue to express confidence a deal can be struck — even as they are growing fearful of an unruly separation.

Arriving in Brussels, German Chancellor Angela Merkel echoed the European line that “90 percent” of the withdrawal agreement was settled. 

But in an address to the German parliament earlier Wednesday, Merkel revealed that her government was stepping up contingency planning in the event that Britain leaves with no deal.

“This brings with it a whole array of questions, such as: How, the day after Brexit, do we manage the estimated 100,000 British citizens who, in some cases, have been living in Germany for years?” Merkel told German lawmakers, according to the Guardian.

The chancellor said, “It is only fitting as a responsible and ­forward-thinking government leadership that we prepare for every scenario — that includes the possibility of Great Britain leaving the European Union without an agreement.”

After Brexit talks broke down last weekend, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday, “I believe in our collective intelligence, so I think we can make progress.”

But the French government also published a draft of emergency legislation that would require Britons to secure visas to visit France if Britain leaves the European Union with no deal. 

In a speech in London on Tuesday evening, John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, said the Brexit vote was a “colossal misjudgment” and that Brexit-backers sold the country a fantasy and would not be forgiven.

Brexit will “damage our national and personal wealth, and may seriously hamper our future security. It may even, over time, break up our United Kingdom. It will most definitely limit the prospects of our young,” he said.

Quentin Aries in Brussels contributed to this report.

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