The United Kingdom and European Union pushed Brexit talks closer to the brink after Prime Minister Theresa May's day of negotiations in Brussels failed to make any significant breakthrough.
During a series of tense meetings, May and senior EU officials agreed their negotiating teams would get back round the table by the end of February in an attempt to break the impasse that threatens to push the U.K. crashing out of the bloc next month without an agreement.
But, with the EU rebuffing May's requests during Thursday's talks, there's no clear solution in sight. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told May he didn't want to reopen their divorce deal, according to a U.K. official.
With just 50 days to the U.K.'s scheduled exit, May is demanding changes to the so-called Irish border backstop arrangement in the deal that the two sides struck in November but was then rejected by the British Parliament. The backstop is an insurance policy aimed at preventing a hard border on the divided island of Ireland and is the most contentious part of the divorce agreement because it effectively keeps the U.K. bound to EU rules.
"We must secure legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement to deal with the concern Parliament has over the backstop," May told reporters in Brussels. "Taking back changes to the backstop, together with the other work we're doing on workers' rights and other issues, will deliver a stable majority in Parliament and that's what I'll continue to work for."
According to three European officials, May asked several times for the EU to include a time limit on the backstop in a meeting with Juncker and EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday. They rejected the idea.
Another person, familiar with the U.K. side of the negotiations, had a different summary of the meeting. May raised all three options that she's considering for changing the backstop: alternative arrangements including technological solutions; a time limit; and a unilateral exit clause. She didn't express a preference for any of the three, the person said.
The deadlock raises the prospect of the negotiations going down to the wire. EU officials said there are currently no plans to arrange an emergency EU summit – necessary if there are changes to the deal or if May asks for Brexit to be delayed – before a scheduled gathering of leaders March 21-22.
That would be just a week before exit day, and would further fuel the sense of panic and despair in British and European businesses that are pouring resources into contingency measures they hope they'll never have to use. A no-deal exit would plunge businesses into a legal limbo, snarling trade and damaging economies on both sides.
"Still no breakthrough in sight," EU President Donald Tusk tweeted after his meeting with May. "Talks will continue."
The EU said the Brexit divorce deal – which contains the backstop – isn't up for renegotiation, but that the political declaration focusing on future relations can be revised. There are questions over whether that would satisfy U.K. members of Parliament because the declaration isn't legally binding and wouldn't remove the need for the backstop.
Talks between May's government and other leaders will continue over the coming weeks. May's Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will travel to Dublin Friday to meet his Irish counterpart, Seamus Woulfe, for talks on the backstop and to underscore the importance of a deal. May herself will travel there on Friday evening for a dinner with Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.
A U.K. official said May also is planning to seek further meetings with other U.K. parties after Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on Wednesday offered to work with her if she committed to staying in a customs union in order to avoid the backstop. The letter he sent May sparked a backlash in his own party as it didn't mention the option of a second referendum.