U.K. Backs Away From Dec. 4 Deadline for Brexit Progress

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. is pushing back against European Union demands to make a better offer on its divorce terms by Monday Dec. 4, amid signs that an imminent breakthrough in Brexit talks is at risk. 

Last week European Council President Donald Tusk set Britain a 10 day ultimatum to improve its proposals for the so-called Brexit divorce bill and for a solution to the impasse on the question of the Irish border.

Prime Minister Theresa May goes to Brussels on Monday for a lunch meeting that was billed as the moment when she’ll set out her offer to break the deadlock. The EU will assess the U.K.’s progress two days later, on Wednesday Dec. 6, in time to prepare a formal announcement on whether negotiations can move on to trade at a summit in mid-December.

Despite earlier suggesting it would work to meet the EU’s demands, the U.K. pushed back against Tusk’s timetable on Friday. “We have always said we are working towards the European Council, which is December 14,” May’s spokesman James Slack told reporters in London on Friday, when asked if she accepted Tusk’s Dec. 4 deadline.

Even so, there were signs that talks on the sensitive issue of how the Irish border can remain open after Brexit were making progress. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Friday a deal is “doable” in the coming days, though more movement is needed. Nigel Dodds, a lawmaker for the Northern Irish DUP, which opposes Dublin’s position and has more clout than ever as it props up May’s government in London, said there’s political will to get an agreement.

An EU official signaled there could be flexibility around the deadline next week, although the U.K. will not be allowed to make an offer at the 11th hour before the summit on Dec. 14.

Border Puzzle

With an outline agreement on the divorce bill in place and progress made toward a deal on citizens’ rights, the Irish border is the main sticking point. 

The almost invisible border that was part of the peace process in Ireland was only possible because Ireland and the U.K. were both members of the EU and its single market. The U.K.’s plan to leave means some kind of policed barrier will have to go up as the line between the two becomes the U.K.’s land frontier with the EU. Ireland’s proposal for no control points would mean Northern Ireland sticking to the EU rulebook – a red line for the DUP whose raison d’etre is to keep the enclave as part of the U.K.

Just in Time?

The question now is whether any firm offer from the U.K. will come too late for it to get the green light to begin discussing the future trade deal it wants with the EU, as well as the transitional arrangements that businesses are desperate for.

Talks on trade and transition terms will not be allowed to begin until “sufficient progress” is made on the terms of the split. If that doesn’t happen by the time of the European Council summit, some British officials fear the future of the negotiations will be in danger, raising the prospect that the U.K. could crash out of the EU with no deal.

May’s officials fear that the EU will simply bank any new offer on the money and then demand more, without allowing the negotiations to move on to discuss trade and are determined to avoid such a trap.

Different Deadline

Dublin has also signaled it does not regard Monday as the fixed deadline and is working toward getting an agreement by the summit. The European Commission said on Friday that it will assess the U.K.’s proposals on the Brexit negotiations at its weekly meeting on Dec. 6.

Alexander Winterstein, spokesman for the commission, said the assessment will follow May’s working lunch with Juncker on Monday. “The prime minister will be here on Monday for a working lunch with the president,” Winterstein told reporters in Brussels on Friday. “The college will then on Wednesday look at the issue whether sufficient progress has been made and it is on Wednesday that you will hear from us on this.”

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