British Prime Minister Theresa May, right, talks to Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz when arriving at the informal EU summit in Salzburg, Austria, Wednesday, Sept. 19, 2018. (AP Photo/Kerstin Joensson)

EU and UK demand Brexit compromise over Irish border

September 19, 2018 - 11:23 am

SALZBURG, Austria (AP) — The European Union and Britain clashed Wednesday over the biggest obstacle to concluding Brexit talks, with both sides urging the other to compromise just weeks before they must seal a deal.

At a summit in Salzburg, Austria, EU Council President Donald Tusk warned Britain that key parts of its Brexit offer — notably keeping the Irish border open — are not satisfactory and must be revised.

But Prime Minister Theresa May insisted that her solution to keep goods flowing seamlessly between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member state Ireland is the "only credible and negotiable plan" on the table.

Tusk though highlighted shortfalls in Britain's position on avoiding a hard border, as well as on economic cooperation, saying that "the U.K.'s proposals will need to be reworked and further negotiated."

He ramped up pressure on May — already fending off in-fighting within her Conservative Party — by saying that time was fast running out to seal a Brexit deal. Britain will leave the EU at midnight on March 29, but both sides are desperate to reach an agreement in coming weeks to leave parliaments time to ratify any accord.

"Every day that is left we must use for talks," Tusk said.

He added that he wants a deal finalized them this autumn, and urged leaders to hold another summit in mid-November as part of a roadmap to get the job done.

Earlier this week, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned that the leaders' Oct. 18 summit in Brussels would be "the moment of truth."

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the host of the Salzburg summit, backed May in saying that "both sides need to compromise." However, he said he hoped May would offer "a step forward" during the informal dinner talks Wednesday.

"We have to do everything to avoid a hard Brexit," he said.

The Irish border conundrum clearly makes that more difficult.

Both sides have pledged to ensure there's no hard border around Northern Ireland but they disagree on how to get there.

The EU has offered to effectively keep Northern Ireland in the bloc's customs union. Barnier says that could be done by checking goods destined for Northern Ireland at companies and markets within the U.K.

But London says this would undermine the U.K. by treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the country. May's latest plan — the so-called Chequers proposals — envisions the whole U.K., including Northern Ireland, remaining in the European single market for goods only, thereby eliminating the need for a hard border.

She told reporters Wednesday that her plan is "the only credible and negotiable plan on the table that delivers no hard border in Northern Ireland and also delivers on the vote of the British people".

"If we are going to achieve a successful conclusion then, just as the U.K. has evolved its position, the EU will need to evolve its position too," she said.

"I am confident that with goodwill and determination we can agree a deal that is right for both parties," May added.

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Lawless reported from London. Gregory Katz in London and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed.