EU summit on hold as May fails to convince leaders of Brexit progress

British PM asserts commitment to backstop while Varadkar says time limit unworkable

Theresa May has failed to persuade European Union leaders that Brexit negotiations have made enough progress to justify calling a summit next month to finalise an agreement.

EU sources told The Irish Times that, after hearing a 15-minute presentation from the British prime minister, the leaders were not planning to organise a special summit.

If decisive progress is made in the next few weeks, however, the leaders agreed that they would convene such a meeting.

Addressing the 27 leaders at the start of a EU summit in Brussels, the British prime minister said she remained fully committed to a legally operable backstop to guarantee there would be no return of a hard border.


Ms May said despite the failure of British and EU negotiators to reach a deal on the withdrawal agreement ahead of the summit, the two sides had defied expectations in the past.

“We have shown that we can bring difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident of a good outcome,” she said. “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”

‘Strong determination’

Earlier, during a half-hour meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, which was described as positive and friendly, Ms May expressed "a strong determination to do a deal", Irish Government sources said.

“She fleshed out some of her proposals,” said one source with knowledge of the encounter.

Asked if Ms May was bringing something new to the summit, the source described her plans as “more developed”.

Irish officials said Ms May reiterated her commitment to agree a legally binding backstop that would remain in place until something better was agreed between the UK and EU.

Earlier Mr Varadkar strongly defended Ireland’s case for no time limit on the backstop,

"It can be temporary by all means," he said, "but it can't have an expiry date . . . unless and until we have an alternative agreement that also assures us that we will have no border on the island of Ireland. And that's what we have in writing . . . so this is not just an issue of principle, but one of trust."

Mr Varadkar brought a copy of yesterday's Irish Times, which featured a story on an IRA bombing of a Border customs post in 1972, into the summit dinner last night to stress to EU leaders the importance of the issue for Ireland.

Mr Varadkar told the EU leaders there were issues arising from Brexit around trade but the issue of peace was so much bigger.

While Ms May received a warmer reception than at last month’s summit in Salzburg, there was little sense in Brussels of a decisive breakthrough.

Mixed reaction

She had bilateral meetings with the presidents of the European Commission and European Council, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, and also unexpectedly met French president Emmanuel Macron.

Overall there was a sense that Ms May had come to Brussels to do business, but there was a mixed reaction about the substance of any new UK initiative.

Meanwhile, the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll finds that an overwhelming majority of voters believe that Mr Varadkar should stick to his position on Brexit and should not compromise to achieve a deal with the UK.

But the poll also shows that most voters are “very concerned” that any sort of new border would damage peace in Ireland.

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy

Pat Leahy is Political Editor of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth

Patrick Smyth is former Europe editor of The Irish Times