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British prime minister Theresa May says she will stand by the Brexit blueprint that was rejected by 27 other European leaders on Thursday, putting the U.K. into a deadlock with the E.U. over the terms of its departure.
May criticized the E.U. for dismissing the U.K.’s plans but not offering any viable proposals of its own. “We are at an impasse,” she said in a speech on Friday inside her London residence.
In a speech that was briefly delayed by a power outage in 10 Downing Street, May said, “I have always said these negotiations were going to be tough, and they are going to be tougher in the final stretch.” The U.K., she said, would be waiting for the E.U. to come back with reasonable proposals.
At a summit of E.U. leaders in the Austrian city of Salzburg on Wednesday and Thursday, May’s plan for Brexit, known as ‘Chequers’ after the location in which it was agreed by her cabinet, was rejected by the other 27 E.U. member states. That plan would have allowed the U.K. to remain a member of the E.U.’s customs union for goods and services, but leave the bloc’s common labor market — meaning free movement between the U.K. and the E.U. would come to an end.
E.U. leaders said May’s plan would undermine one of the founding principles of the single market: the free movement of people between countries. The hardline approach taken against May was led by French president Emmanuel Macron, who said her plans were “not acceptable” in their current state. The plans “risk undermining the single market,” said Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council.
At a press conference after E.U. leaders rejected May’s plans, a visibly frustrated prime minister addressed journalists, saying that the U.K. was preparing for a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and that under no circumstances would she accept a second referendum – which some in the country are calling for to break the stalemate. “The proposal we have put forward is the only proposal on the table that delivers,” she said.
May largely echoed that line on Friday, saying that “in the meantime” the U.K. would continue to make preparations for leaving without a deal — signaling to the E.U.’s leaders that she is willing to engage in a form of brinkmanship. Many economists say “no deal” would be damaging to both the E.U. and U.K. economies.
The E.U., she added, was making demands in Brexit negotiations that would either put a customs border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., or a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The latter would undermine the peacekeeping efforts of the Good Friday agreement, which resolved decades of sectarian conflict.
The former, May said, would break up the United Kingdom. “It is something I will never agree to,” she said, “and it is something no British prime minister will ever agree to. If the E.U. believe I will, they are making a fundamental mistake.”
May had hoped that Salzburg would strengthen her hand in the run up to her Conservative Party conference, the annual gathering of the party where prime ministers traditionally make a keynote speech on policy and the direction of the country. Elements in her own party who want a ‘hard’ Brexit (leaving completely the single market of the E.U., contrary to May’s Chequers plan,) will possibly be emboldened by the results of the Salzburg summit.
However in refusing to budge in the face of rejection by the E.U., May might hope to win the support of party lawmakers in the face of what she is casting as obstinate treatment by the E.U. “Throughout this process, I have treated the E.U. with nothing but respect,” May said Friday. “The U.K. expects the same … at this late stage in the negotiations, it is not acceptable to simply reject the other side’s proposals.”
In any case, the clock is ticking for negotiations to progress. Britain will leave the bloc on March 29, 2019, with or without a deal, unless an extension to the 2-year leaving period is agreed.