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With Deadline Looming, Brexit Negotiations Once Again Are Stalled


European Union leaders are gathering in Brussels today on what is supposed to be the deadline for a deal to ease the United Kingdom out of the bloc next March. That's not very long for experts to hammer out the details of the deal and, after that, for each of the 28 members' legislatures to approve the split. Even so, negotiations have once again stalled, as NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON, BYLINE: Plans to unveil a draft declaration today on the EU's future trade deal with the U.K. have been scrapped. Nor is a breakthrough likely in the next few days, according to the EU'S chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.


MICHEL BARNIER: (Through interpreter) We need to negotiate an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom and will take the time we need to calmly, seriously find this agreement in the coming weeks.

NELSON: In Brussels, EU President Donald Tusk told reporters he was not pleased with the delay.


DONALD TUSK: And as I see it, the only source of hope for a deal, for now, is the goodwill and determination on both sides.

NELSON: Other leaders within the bloc are also fed up. Many on the EU side see the delays as a negotiating tactic by London to try and force concessions. Even so, their foreign ministers, who met earlier in the week, tried to sound positive about the prospects of an eventual agreement.



NELSON: German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, "even London must recognize the need not to introduce uncertainty that would end up hurting Europeans and their economies." He said he hoped common sense would eventually prevail. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney agreed.

FOREIGN MINISTER SIMON COVENEY: That is frustrating and disappointing from an Irish perspective. We want to see an outcome here that settles nerves, that allows us to move ahead with a managed, sensible Brexit.

NELSON: His nervousness stems from the uncertainty over the future border between his country, which is an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. For many months now, the fate of the border has been a major sticking point, even though both sides agree it's important to keep the boundary open to protect the peace deal in Northern Ireland.

What London and Brussels don't agree on is where to put a hard border once the U.K. is no longer in the bloc and who should manage that boundary's security and customs controls. Nor do they agree on how long the U.K., or at least part of it, might stay in the EU customs union while a final arrangement is worked out. Again, EU President Tusk.


TUSK: It looks like a new version of the Gordian Knot. Unfortunately, I can’t see a new version of Alexander the Great.

NELSON: Josef Janning, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, says Tusk, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron are playing hardball with the U.K., trying to keep it from sowing division within the EU over Brexit.

JOSEF JANNING: They have seen the many attempts that British foreign policy, British EU policy has made to split the EU, which of course, in the eyes of Berlin and Paris, is running against the rules because it was agreed that there would be a negotiation about Brexit between the British government and the representatives of the European Union and not a bickering, you know, going around capitals and trying to score points here and there.

NELSON: Prime Minister Theresa May told her Cabinet yesterday morning that she could not agree to current EU proposals to create a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. or locking her country into a customs union with the bloc indefinitely. But at a raucous Parliament session in London the day before, May said the many months of negotiations had not been wasted.


PRIME MINISTER THERESA MAY: We have made real progress in recent weeks on both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on our future relationship. And I want to pay tribute to both negotiating teams for the many, many hours of hard work that have got us to this point.

NELSON: Meanwhile, Tusk said if May came to the summit with new facts, it would kickstart negotiations again. He said with enough progress, a special summit could be held in Brussels next month to finalize a deal that can then be sent to member states for ratification. Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Berlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.