Talks stall ahead of crunch Brexit meeting

European Council Donald Tusk

European Council Donald Tusk - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

A crunch Brexit meeting is 'not a deadline' according to Number 10 as talks over the Irish border continue to stall progress.

Theresa May will today meet with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, in what has been described as a 'crucial' moment in negotiations.

Last month Tusk said the meeting in Brussels was a deadline for significant progress on the divorce bill, the rights of EU citizens in the UK and the Irish border.

But Downing Street played that down after all-night talks failed to reach an agreement and Dublin insisted it would hold firm on the need for a written assurance from the UK there would be no hardening of the border post-Brexit.

Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said some progress on the form of text had been made and expressed hope that an agreement could be reached but stressed there was still a distance to travel.

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Tanaiste Coveney acknowledged that no-one wanted a hard border but added: 'Our fear of course is that it would be an unintended consequence because people can't find a way of resolving that issue in the future and we can't allow that and we won't.'

He said talks involving London, Brussels and Dublin were at a 'sensitive place'.

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The meetings in the Belgian capital mark the deadline set by Tusk for May to come forward with an improved offer on the terms of Britain's withdrawal.

Without it, Tusk has warned he will be unable to recommend EU leaders give the green light for the second phase of negotiations – to include talks on a free trade agreement – to begin at their summit on December 14 and 15.

Downing Street sought to play down the significance of the talks, describing them as a 'staging post' with further discussions needed before the full gathering with the other 27 leaders in the middle of the month.

'With plenty of discussions still to go, Monday will be an important staging post on the road to the crucial December council,' a UK Government spokesman said.

However, her room for manoeuvre appears to be limited, with hard-line Brexiteers urging her to walk away from the negotiating table altogether if EU leaders refuse to sanction the move to the second phase.

Tusk has made clear that they cannot move on to phase two unless the UK can satisfy Dublin that there will be no return to a 'hard border' between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Influential German MEP David McAllister, who is close to Chancellor Angela Merkel, has said it is 'still a 50-50' as to whether there would be a breakthrough.

Meanwhile, a series of prominent Conservatives including Jacob Rees-Mogg, John Redwood and former chancellor Lord Lawson signed a letter calling on May to refuse to settle the UK's 'divorce bill' unless Brussels agrees to a series of new demands.

They include settling the terms of a free trade agreement 'in principle' by the end of March 2018 and an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the freedom of movement to the UK for EU nationals when the UK leaves a year later on March 30 2019.

Other signatories to the letter, organised by the Leave Means Leave group, include Conservative former ministers Owen Paterson and David Jones and Labour MP Graham Stringer.

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