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Britain's May appeals to EU leaders but no sign of Brexit deal

Updated: 2018-09-20 11:29
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May arrives at the Felsenreitschule prior to their informal dinner as part of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government in Salzburg, Austria on Sept 19, 2018. [Photo/VCG]

SALZBURG, Austria - Prime Minister Theresa May appealed directly to fellow European Union leaders on Wednesday to drop "unacceptable" Brexit demands that she said could rip Britain apart, urging the bloc to respond in kind to her "serious and workable" plan.

They listened politely for a few minutes but said afterwards that a stalemate on the Irish border was unbroken -- though some EU diplomats detected a cracking of ice around the spectacular summit dinner table, laid in the Salzburg theater used to film a dramatic escape finale in the film "The Sound of Music".

Earlier, EU officials insisted May had to give more ground.

After Wiener schnitzel and four hours of wrangling over Europe's migrant problem, May was given the floor and tried to win over her 27 peers by effectively asking them what they would do if they were asked to agree a "legal separation" of their countries -- something she says the EU is asking for by insisting Northern Ireland might stay under EU economic rules.

Maintaining a united front that refuses to let May bypass the negotiations run by Michel Barnier of the European Commission, they did not respond to her. They will discuss the issue among themselves over lunch on Thursday, setting what Barnier hopes can be a path to a final deal in two months.

"I believe that I have put forward serious and workable proposals," May told the summit, according to a senior British government source. "We will of course not agree on every detail, but I hope that you will respond in kind.

"The onus is now on all of us to get this deal done."

For now, however, with May still facing criticism of her "soft Brexit" approach at her Conservative Party conference in 10 days, there was little sign of either side giving way.

"At this stage, it's a standstill. There is no progress," Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite told Reuters after the dinner. Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini added: "On the border issue, there has been no progress."

"It was polite," said a senior EU diplomat. "They are trying to be nice to her and there will be nice words tomorrow."

A second said May seemed to be edging toward compromise, offering new proposals on how to avoid differing economic regulations disrupting trade and speaking of a "middle way": "She spoke. There was no reaction. 'Thank you' and we moved on.”

With barely six months until Britain leaves the bloc, at the risk of serious disruption if there is no deal to tie up legal loose ends, there is pressure on both sides: "You can hear very clearly the clock ticking in the room," said the second diplomat. "And that’s starting to have a psychological effect.”

EU officials again said Britain had to move its own position over what has become known as the Irish backstop - how to avoid erecting border posts between the British province and EU member Ireland - as well as on future economic cooperation after Brexit day in March.

A government source suggested Britain would come up with other proposals to try to reach agreement on Northern Ireland "in due course", but May has so far been reluctant to move from her Chequers plan, hashed out at her country home in July.

Reuters

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