Theresa May says United Kingdom will not do Brexit deal at any cost

Theresa May the Prime Minister

Theresa May the Prime Minister

The prime minister was accused last night of breaking her promise to the Democratic Unionist Party that she would never sign up to a deal that could allow Northern Ireland to be divided from the rest of the United Kingdom.

Britain leaves the European Union on March 29, but a deal must be sealed in the coming weeks to leave enough time for parliaments to endorse it.

The issue of the Irish border has proven to be the main stumbling block in the negotiations, with the United Kingdom and European Union divided over the issue of a backstop, an arrangement created to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. But British eurosceptics fear May is planning to give too much ground, and her Northern Irish allies warned that unless the European Union moved further, Britain could leave with no deal at all.

Nevertheless, according to her spokesman, May opened the meeting by saying that while the United Kingdom should aim to conclude the withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this would "not be done at any cost".

The former attorney general, who backs the People's Vote campaign for a fresh referendum, said: "It is of course entirely right that the Cabinet Office seeks to explain the full implications of any deal to the British public". Earlier Tuesday he told Belgian television RTBF that, as of that moment, there remained "a real point of divergence" on the Irish issue.

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Disagreement over how to keep goods flowing across the Irish border is the main obstacle.

A British official speaking on the condition of anonymity said a November summit had begun to look like "a stretch".

Finnish Prime Minister Juha Sipila said, however, that major progress in Brexit talks was likely "within a week", based on his discussions with several visiting EU leaders and European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs summits of the EU's 28 leaders. But he rejected the idea Britain could unilaterally end the arrangement, something Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and other eurosceptics in May's Conservative party want.

The concerns focus on Attorney General Geoffrey Cox's advice on how an exit from the backstop could be found to make sure the United Kingdom is not permanently kept within a customs union, which would severely curtail its ability to strike worldwide free trade deals - a key prize for Brexiteers. Work is continuing on this, he said, adding: "Don't be under any illusions that there remains a significant amount of work to do".

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