British Prime Minister Theresa May got ready for a trip to European Union headquarters to seek an elusive breakthrough in Brexit negotiations but was told Tuesday on the eve of the talks that her most important demand is not even up for discussion.
EU Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said "the EU27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement," a condition that many British lawmakers are insisting on before they back a deal to have Britain leave the bloc on March 29.
U.K. lawmakers' objections center on a provision for the border between the U.K.'s Northern Ireland and Ireland. The mechanism, known as the backstop, is a safeguard that would keep the U.K. in a customs union with the EU to remove the need for checks along the Irish border until a permanent new trading relationship is in place.
May wants to change the deal's phrasing to make sure that a provision to ensure an open Irish border after Brexit would only apply temporarily. Her government says Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier have held "productive" discussions on the backstop.
But the EU refuses to budge and says the 585-page legally binding Brexit agreement is a take-it-or-leave-it document. It is willing to discuss other ways to find a compromise, but has challenged London to come up with concrete proposals.
Schinas said talks this week seek "to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the U.K. parliament and respect the guidelines agreed" by the EU nations.
The Brexit deal negotiated between May and the EU last year—and rejected by Britain's Parliament last month—includes a long transition period after Britain leaves the bloc on March 29 to give time for new trade relations to be set up.
If the U.K. Parliament does not agree on the deal before March 29, Britain risks a chaotic departure that could be costly to businesses and ordinary people on both sides of the Channel.
The uncertainty has already led many firms to shift some operations abroad, stockpile goods or defer investment decisions.
On Tuesday, Honda announced it will close its only U.K. plant in 2021. The automaker said the decision was not directly related to Brexit, but U.K. Business Secretary Greg Clark said "decisions like Honda's this morning demonstrates starkly how much is at stake."
Clark, a leading pro-EU voice in May's Cabinet, said the Brexit-related uncertainty facing businesses was "unacceptable" and "needs to be brought to a conclusion."
Clark said businesses could not wait until "the last minute on March 28" for certainty.
With less than six weeks to go until March 29, chances are growing that Britain will seek to postpone its departure from the EU.
Business Minister Richard Harrington told a manufacturers' conference Tuesday that if May could not get her deal through Parliament on a second try before March 29, there would likely be "a small extension" to the Brexit deadline so Parliament could come up with a new plan.
But delaying Brexit would require the EU's approval—and if it is extended too far, it would force Britain to take part in the May 23-26 EU-wide election for the European Parliament.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the German daily Stuttgarter Zeitung on Tuesday that such a scenario was "difficult to imagine."
Juncker said it's up to Britain to decide whether it wants to request a delay to the Brexit date, but that Britain's departure should happen before the newly elected European Parliament gathers in early July.