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In The U.K.-EU Faceoff, Neither Side Is Blinking

British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a press conference at the end of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, on Thursday.
Christof Stache
AFP/Getty Images
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses a press conference at the end of the EU Informal Summit of Heads of State or Government at the Mozarteum University in Salzburg, Austria, on Thursday.

British Prime Minister Theresa May's hopes of persuading her peers in the European Union to keep the U.K. in the bloc's single market were dashed at an informal summit in Salzburg that ended on Thursday.

She appealed for compromise to ease the United Kingdom's departure from the EU, speaking in the theater where "So Long, Farewell" was performed by the Von Trapp family in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. But EU leaders clearly were not feeling nostalgic.

They are playing hardball in the final weeks before a deal must be struck if it's to be ratified by the EU parliament and all member states' legislatures before Brexit happens on March 29, 2019. Failure to make a deal could leave the U.K. and the bloc reeling politically and economically, and could disrupt trade and travel.

Jean-Claude Juncker, who heads the EU Commission, is one of the leaders whom May failed to impress.

When asked Thursday about the British prime minister's 10-minute speech the night before, he simply said: "It was interesting. It was polite. It was not aggressive. She is doing her job."

EU President Donald Tusk later told reporters at a press conference that May's "suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work," because it would undermine the union's single market.

"We have very clear principles regarding the integrity of the single market and regarding precisely the Irish border," explained French President Emmanuel Macron, who has been especially critical of the U.K.'s wish to leave the European Union next March 29 while continuing to have access to the bloc's market.

That's why "we need a U.K. proposal precisely preserving this backstop in the framework of a withdrawal agreement," he said.

The "backstop" Brussels is proposing would keep Northern Ireland under EU economic oversight if London and the EU cannot agree on a trade deal to keep borders between the UK and European bloc open after the transition period that ends in 2020.

But May says any Irish deal must hinge on the EU accepting her country's proposal, which would – for a limited time — keep the UK in the European single market and customs union when it comes to trading goods.

Tusk and other EU officials emphasized the clock on reaching a compromise is ticking, citing a hard deadline of Oct. 17-18, when the next formal EU summit is scheduled in Brussels.

An emergency summit on Brexit proposed for Nov. 17-18 will only happen as a "punchline to effective negotiations," Tusk said. "The Irish question needs something more than only good intentions. We need tough, clear and precise guarantees."

But he added that after the Salzburg summit, he's feeling a "little more optimistic" about the possibility the sides will come to an agreement.

Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed, saying the tone of discussions at the Salzburg summit showed the "atmosphere" of Brexit negotiations were improving. But she reiterated that the 27 remaining EU members agree that "in the matter of the single market, there can be no compromises."

She added: "There is still a lot of work to do," and a no-deal scenario can't be ruled out.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Special correspondent Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson is based in Berlin. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and read at NPR.org. From 2012 until 2018 Nelson was NPR's bureau chief in Berlin. She won the ICFJ 2017 Excellence in International Reporting Award for her work in Central and Eastern Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan.