Brussels has taunted Theresa May over her ‘insane’ Brexit plan as she heads to Ireland on the latest leg of her struggle to get a deal.
The Prime Minister met a wall of resistance from EU chiefs to her pleas for changes to the backstop in a brutal round of talks in the Belgian capital yesterday.
EU council president Donald Tusk stoked tensions by dismissing Mrs May’s objections to his jibe about Brexiteers deserving a ‘special place in Hell’.
He also praised a rival proposal from Jeremy Corbyn to lock the UK in a customs union – while commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker insisted the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened.
Even though there was a small comfort as the bloc agreed to re-start discussions between technical teams on a solution, it now seems impossible for Mrs May to have a new package ready to bring back to the Commons before the end of February.
Theresa May met a wall of resistance from EU chiefs to her pleas for changes to the backstop in a brutal round of talks in the Belgian capital yesterday
That would be barely a month before the UK is due to crash out – raising the stakes dramatically.
As the process threatened to spiral deeper into acrimony, a senior EU official complained that Brexit was ‘still at square one’ and they had ‘lost the month of February’.
‘Mrs May is now flirting with nodeal and there’s a point where we’re going to enter full blown blame game mode,” the official told the Telegraph.
Will the PM face another bid to delay Brexit next week?
Remainer MPs’ hopes of delaying Brexit are hanging in the balance after ministers signalled they are not ready to back the move yet.
Pro-EU politicians are mulling over whether to launch a new bid to extend Article 50 next week.
An amendment tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Tory Nick Boles last week was only defeated after Theresa May appealed for more time to renegotiate her deal.
They are considering whether to mount another attempt in the latest series of crunch votes on Thursday.
There have been claims that more than a dozen ministers could quit in order to avert no-deal Brexit.
However, one Cabinet minister told MailOnine they did not expect large number of colleagues to join a revolt.
‘It is all about whether it is the last chance. On balance, it probably isn’t,’ they said.
Senior Labour figures are also dubious about whether the amendment would pass.
‘The problem with the Remain group is it is not solid,’ one source said. ‘They are a bit all over the place.
They claimed the PM was determined to run the negotiation “down to the wire”, describing the remaining timetable for striking and ratifying a deal as “insane”.
Mrs May will meet Irish premier Leo Varadkar for dinner tonight as she continues her shuttle-diplomacy to try to break the deadlock.
Ahead of her talks with the Taoiseach, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will meet in the Irish capital with his Irish counterpart, Seamus Woulfe.
Mr Cox has been leading work within Whitehall on providing either a time limit on the backstop or giving the UK an exit mechanism from it.
Both proposals have received a dusty response from Dublin, which insists the backstop cannot be time limited if it is to provide an effective ‘insurance policy’ against the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Mrs May, however, has warned she needs legally-binding assurances the UK will not be tied to EU rules indefinitely through the backstop if she is to get her Brexit deal through the House of Commons.
Ahead of their talks, Mr Varadkar will travel to Belfast for talks on Friday with the main Northern Ireland parties.
Meanwhile Downing Street has said ministers are looking ‘with interest’ at a letter from Jeremy Corbyn setting out the terms on which Labour would support a deal in Parliament.
The move provoked a furious outcry from Labour Remainers – who fear the plan effectively kills off their hopes of the party backing a second referendum – with warnings from some MPs they could quit the party altogether.
The PM will tonight have dinner with Leo Varadkar (pictured left in Brussels with Donald Tusk earlier this week)
Mrs May had a series of awkward encounters with EU chiefs including Jean-Claude Juncker (pictured) in Brussels yesterday
Ireland could suffer crippling economic hit from no-deal Brexit
Ireland could suffer a crippling economic hit if the UK crashes out of the EU without any agreement in place.
Dublin’s finance minister Paschal Donohoe said last month that growth could be over 4 per cent lower over the next five years if there is no deal – and other estimates have put the damage even higher.
There are fears of food shortages and huge queues at ports, with speculation the consequences could be worse than for the UK.
Plans published by the Irish government before Christmas insist it will still try to avoid a hard border with Northern Ireland even if there is no deal, despite the EU commission suggesting this will not be possible.
But they warned there would be ‘severe’ impacts including on crucial supply chains and any measures that are taken can only be a ‘damage limitation exercise’.
Deputy PM Simon Coveney admitted the potential problems from no deal were ‘stark’ and ‘sobering’
Deputy PM Simon Coveney admitted the problems highlighted in the report were ‘stark’ and ‘sobering’.
Holyhead in Wales is one of the main destinations served by Dublin port but the UK’s role as a so-called land-bridge between Ireland and Europe has been cast into doubt by fears of a hard Brexit.
According to the Irish plans, work has been ongoing to create 33 inspection bays for trucks coming off ships. Parking for 270 trucks would ensure those awaiting inspection do not halt other port traffic.
Office accommodation for an additional 144 staff will be required within the area.
It said the application of World Trade Organisation tariffs and regulatory divergence could affect supply chains and the availability of imports from the UK.
‘A further fall in the value of sterling would impact on the competitiveness of Irish businesses, while a deterioration in economic conditions in Britain could impact on exports,’ the report said.
‘Whilst Brexit’s potential macro-economy impacts dominate headlines, Brexit has the potential to impact every element of economic functionality: trade flows, supply chains, economic and business operations, the labour market and consumer confidence and spending.’
The report highlighted particular pressures on sectors like agri-food, fisheries, aviation and road transport, pharma-chemicals, electrical machinery, retail and wholesale business.
The economic impact is also likely to be greater in certain regions – especially near the border with Northern Ireland – and on smaller businesses that are more dependent on trade with Britain and Northern Ireland.
Measures are being introduced to try and avert shortages of food or medicine, as the document warned a no-deal Brexit could ‘affect supply chains and the cost and/or availability of imports from the UK’.
Number 10 sources acknowledged there were still ‘very considerable points of difference’ with Labour over the blueprint – which includes a customs union with the EU, something the Prime Minister has repeatedly ruled out.
However, they may hope the threat Parliament could swing behind a ‘softer’ Norway-style Brexit if there is no agreement on Mrs May’s deal will convince some Tory Brexiteer rebels to fall into line behind her plan.
It comes as the Financial Times reported that a secret group at the heart of Whitehall has been working on emergency plans to kick-start the economy in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
The ‘Project After’ group, is said to have been put together by the Cabinet Secretary and head of the Civil Service, Sir Mark Sedwill, with senior figures from the Treasury, Cabinet Office, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and the Department for International Trade.
The options said to have been considered by the group – which has been working since the summer and is in close contact with the Bank of England – range from cutting taxes and boosting investment to slashing tariffs.
‘It’s basically a Doomsday list of economic levers we could pull if the economy is about to tank,’ one Whitehall source is quoted as saying.
In her meetings in Brussels on Thursday, Mrs May won a commitment from European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker that their teams will carry on talking in an effort to find an agreed solution that can command support in the Commons.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will hold talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier on Monday and Mrs May and Mr Juncker have agreed to meet again before the end of the month to take stock of the situation.
The EU side remains adamant it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement while European Council president Donald Tusk said there was ‘no breakthrough in sight’.
However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was more encouraging, suggesting that a deal was possible without re-opening the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘Of course its also our duty to get such an agreement – that requires Britain to tell as clearly as possible what they want,’ she said during a visit to Slovakia on Thursday.
‘I think we can find solutions without re-opening the withdrawal agreement. That is not on the agenda for us.’
Jeremy Corbyn mounted a bid to outflank the PM yesterday by calling for the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU