British PM Theresa May hails Brexit talks ‘progress’ but no breakthrough

BRUSSELS, Feb 22 (NNN-AGENCIES) – British Prime Minister Theresa May said she had made “progress” in talks with the EU as she sought to extract concessions on the terms of Britain’s divorce, but as expected there was no major breakthrough.

With less than six weeks until Brexit day, May met on Wednesday European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hoping for movement on the “Irish backstop” issue — after EU leaders insisted they would not restart negotiations.

Fears are growing that Britain could yet crash out without a deal, and there was fresh drama just before May headed to Brussels as three of her MPs resigned from her Conservative party in protest over Brexit to join a new independent group of lawmakers.

Citing the risk of a “hard” Brexit, ratings agency Fitch on Wednesday warned it could downgrade Britain, while the pound slipped against the US dollar.

A joint statement from May and Juncker called their meeting “constructive”, striking a slightly more positive tone than when they met a fortnight ago.

“The two leaders agreed that talks had been constructive, and they urged their respective teams to continue to explore the options in a positive spirit,” the statement said.

Separately, May said she had stressed the need for “legally binding changes to the backstop” — though the EU has ruled this out.

“We’ve agreed that work to find a solution will continue at pace, time is of the essence and it’s in both our interests that when the UK leaves the EU it does so in an orderly way. And so we’ve made progress,” May said.

May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on November 25 last year, but the British leader’s own parliament rejected it overwhelmingly on January 15.

Since then, May and her ministers have repeatedly met EU leaders and their negotiator Michel Barnier to urge them to reopen the text to find a way to appease eurosceptic MPs.

The main stumbling block has been the Irish backstop, which provides for Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found — such as a future free trade deal — to ensure that Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland remains open.

Brexiteers in May’s own Conservative party see this as a “trap” to keep Britain tied to the bloc indefinitely, and have demanded a time limit or exit clause.

But such a clause would be seen in Brussels as a betrayal of EU member Ireland and has consistently been given short shrift by EU officials.

May and Juncker’s statement indicated a fresh push to see what guarantees the EU could offer on the backstop to convince sceptical MPs it will not be used to trap Britain.

May said her Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would be back in Brussels on Thursday — just three days since their last visit — as the pace of negotiations picks up. — NNN-AGENCIES