EU Leaders Gather for Brexit Summit With Deal in Balance

European Union leaders were converging on Brussels Wednesday for what had been billed as a "moment of truth" Brexit summit but which now holds little promise for a breakthrough.

BRUSSELS (AP) β€” European Union leaders were converging on Brussels Wednesday for what had been billed as a "moment of truth" Brexit summit but which now holds little promise for a breakthrough.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is set to urge her counterparts to give ground on Britain's departure from the bloc, while EU leaders hope she brings "concrete proposals" to break the deadlock.

EU Council President Donald Tusk has told May that "creative" thinking from Britain is required to avoid a hard border between EU member Ireland and the U.K's Northern Ireland, the issue that has brought divorce talks to a standstill.

Britain leaves the EU on March 29, but a deal must be sealed soon so parliaments have time to give their verdict.

May plans to accentuate the positive when she addresses the other 27 EU leaders Wednesday β€” before they have dinner without her β€” by stressing how much progress has been made in many areas. May will also have separate meetings with key figures on the border question: Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

Ireland's foreign minister hinted at one possible area of compromise, saying the European Union was willing to extend Britain's post-Brexit transition period, giving more time to find a permanent solution to the Irish border problem.

At present the two sides are proposing that Britain remain inside the EU single market and bound by its rules from the time it leaves the bloc in March until December 2020, to give time for new trade relations to be set up.

Many suspect that will not be enough time, which has led the EU to demand a "backstop" to ensure there are no customs posts or other controls along the currently invisible border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland. Disagreement over the backstop has brought divorce negotiations to a standstill.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier had suggested "more time in the transition period to agree an alternative solution to a backstop."

The idea is to give the U.K. enough time to negotiation new customs arrangements so that the backstop is never likely to be used, he told the BBC.

Britain says it has not asked for an extension, but May has not yet come up with proposals for unblocking the border logjam. She is hemmed in by pro-Brexit members of her Conservative Party, who oppose any more compromises with the bloc, and by her parliamentary allies in Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party, who insist a solution to the border issue can't include customs checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K.

Britain and the EU say they are hopeful of progress in the next few weeks, pushing the timeline for a deal into November, or even December, when another EU summit is scheduled.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday that she still believes it's possible to conclude a "good and sustainable" agreement with Britain before its departure β€” but stressed Germany also is preparing for the risk of a no-deal departure.

As for the future relationship with Britain, she said "it must always be clear that, although we want to avoid hardship, ultimately the difference between membership in the European Union and a partnership with the European Union as a third state must and will become clear."

Meanwhile, the top EU trade official played down the importance of a U.S. announcement that it will pursue a trade deal with Britain, noting London cannot negotiate such pacts until it leaves the bloc.

The U.S. administration has notified Congress that it will seek trade pacts with the EU, Japan and Britain. President Donald Trump has long said he wants a deal with Britain, even as it negotiates a messy EU exit.

EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom noted Wednesday that "the U.K. cannot negotiate any trade agreement as long as they are a member of the European Union."

Malmstrom said the Europeans "see this merely as preparations being made by the U.S. to negotiate with them and others."

British opponents of Brexit say the U.K. won't be able to strike a trade deal with the U.S. unless it weakens its current EU-level protections on workers rights, animal welfare and environmental protection.


Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this story.

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