LONDON (AP) — Senior European Union and British officials were set to hold more Brexit talks less than a month before the United Kingdom is scheduled to leave the bloc, as U.K. officials denied Monday that attempts to seal a divorce deal are deadlocked.
EU and U.K. officials said the bloc’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, will meet U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on Tuesday.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s spokesman, James Slack, said the two sides have “definitely been making progress” over the past few weeks and negotiations are at a “critical point.”
Britain is due to leave the EU on March 29, but Parliament has rejected May’s deal, raising the prospect of a chaotic, economically damaging departure from the bloc.
British lawmakers’ objections center on a provision to guarantee there are no customs posts or other barriers along the currently invisible border between the U.K.’s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
Brexit-supporting lawmakers in the U.K. fear the backstop could be used to bind Britain to EU regulations indefinitely, and May wants to revise the deal to reassure opponents that it would only apply temporarily.
EU leaders insist that the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement can’t be reopened, and talks are focusing on drafting an addendum or other additional words.
“We are happy to offer further clarifications and further assurances if that can help the U.K. government get the agreement over the line,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said Monday.
“But from day one we have been very straight about a few things and among those is that Brexit cannot lead, under any circumstances, to the emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Tweaks and clarifications, however, are unlikely to satisfy Britain’s most ardent pro-Brexit lawmakers.
Cox, Britain’s attorney general, dismissed media reports that he had given up on securing significant changes from the EU. He tweeted that much of the reporting had been inaccurate, and “complex and detailed negotiations cannot be conducted in public. “
As May tries to build support for her deal before bringing it back to Parliament next week, she is being accused of trying to bribe opposition politicians into voting for it.
The government has announced a 1.6 billion-pound ($2.1 billion) package of funding over six years to help regenerate run-down communities.
Many are towns in areas of central and northern England represented by the opposition Labour Party, and the move is being seen as a bid to win support from their lawmakers for May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.
But Labour lawmakers reacted coolly to the announcement. Chris Bryant called the money “corrupt, patronizing, pathetic” and “all to appease the Brexit monster.”
Labour legislator Gareth Snell said the allocation for his area of central England was “less than the total value of cuts faced by Stoke-on-Trent City Council alone over the same period” because of the Conservative government’s austerity measures.
May’s spokesman denied the money was a bribe, saying it was not conditional on support for May’s Brexit deal.
As the stalemate continues, pressure is growing for a delay to Brexit, or a new referendum on Britain’s EU membership.
Rajesh Agrawal, London’s deputy mayor for business czar, told The Associated Press that with just 25 days left to go, “we need to take the pressure off.”
He said this could be done by revoking Article 50, which formally triggered the Brexit process, “and then we go back to the people for confirmation. Because it’s only right and democratic to let the people have the final say.”
Casert reported from Brussels. Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.
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