No breakthrough in Brexit talks, says EU's Jean-Claude Juncker

The head of the European Commission, the EU's executive body, signaled a failure in reaching a breakthrough in Brexit talks. But the UK's premier Theresa May said she is "confident" that a fair deal will be reached.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said on Monday that negotiations on the UK's departure from the EU have failed to reach a breakthrough amid a looming two-year deadline.

Politics | 05.12.2017

"Despite our best efforts and the significant process we and our teams have made in the past days on the remaining withdrawal issues, it was not possible to reach a complete agreement today," Juncker said during a joint press conference with British Prime Minister Theresa May.

Read more: Brexit: What's the 'no deal' fallout for the UK and EU?

The British premier told reporters that while there was no deal yet, she is optimistic at the chances of finalizing an accord to prevent what analysts have called a "hard Brexit," or the UK's divorce from the EU without an agreement on relations.

Politics | 19.10.2017

"As President Juncker has said, we have had a constructive meeting today. Both sides have been working hard in good faith; we've been negotiating hard," May told reporters. "We will reconvene before the end of the week and I am also confident that we will conclude this positively."

Deal in the making?

Juncker backed May's statement, saying he could also see a deal on the horizon, adding that it could take place even before a summit of EU member states slated for mid-December.

In June 2016, British citizens narrowly voted in favor of the UK leaving the 28-nation bloc, prompting a wider political debate in European capitals on the EU's future.

Juncker's remarks come after what appeared to be a deal on the border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, and Northern Ireland, which forms part of the UK.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

Hard or soft options

It's essentially a choice of a harder or softer Brexit. Harder prioritizes border control over trade. UK firms would pay tariffs to do business in the EU, and vice versa. The softest Brexit would see access to the single market, or at least a customs union, maintained. That would require concessions — including the payment of a hefty "divorce bill" — to which the UK has provisionally agreed.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

A leap into the unknown

Businesses have expressed concern about a "cliff edge" scenario, where Britain leaves the EU with no deal. Even if an agreement is reached at the EU bloc level, the worry is that it could be rejected at the last minute. Each of the 27 remaining countries must ratify the arrangements, and any might reject them. That could mean chaos for businesses and individuals.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

No deal - better than a bad deal?

If there is no agreement at all, a fully sovereign UK would be free to strike new trade deals and need not make concessions on the rights of EU citizens living in the UK or pay the financial settlement of outstanding liabilities. However, trade would be crippled. UK citizens in other parts of the EU would be at the mercy of host governments. There would also be a hard EU-UK border in Ireland.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

Divorce-only deal

The EU and the UK could reach a deal on Britain's exiting the bloc without an agreement on future relations. This scenario would still be a very hard Brexit, but would at least demonstrate a degree of mutual understanding. Trade agreements would be conducted, on an interim basis, on World Trade Organization rules.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

Limited arrangement, like with Canada

Most trade tariffs on exported goods are lifted, except for "sensitive" food items like eggs and poultry. However, exporters would have to show their products are genuinely "made in Britain" so the UK does not become a "back door" for global goods to enter the EU. Services could be hit more. The City of London would lose access to the passporting system its lucrative financial business relies on.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

Bespoke deal: Swiss model

Under the Swiss model, the UK would have single market access for goods and services while retaining most aspects of national sovereignty. Switzerland, unlike other members of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), did not join the European Economic Area (EEA) and was not automatically obliged to adopt freedom of movement. Under a bilateral deal, it agreed to do so but is still dragging its feet.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

The Norway way

As part of the European Economic Area, Norway has accepted freedom of movement – something that no Brexit-supporting UK government would be likely to do. Norway still has to obey many EU rules and is obliged to make a financial contribution to the bloc while having no voting rights. Some see this as the worst of both worlds.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

A Turkey-style customs union

Turkey is the only major country to have a customs union with the EU, as part of a bilateral agreement. Under such an arrangement, the UK would not be allowed to negotiate trade deals outside the EU, instead having the bloc negotiate on its behalf. Many Brexiteers would be unwilling to accept this. It would, however, help minimize disruption at ports and, crucially, at the Irish border.

Deal or no deal? Brexit options boiled down

No deal, no Brexit?

EU President Donald Tusk says the outcome of the talks depends on Britain, citing a good deal, bad deal or "no Brexit" as possible options. However, with both of the UK's major political parties – the Conservatives and Labour – committed to going ahead with Brexit, that looks unlikely.

The Irish question

However, officials from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland effectively torpedoed rumors of a deal, saying they would not accept different terms post-Brexit.

"We will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom," said DUP leader Arlene Foster.

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Read more: Northern Ireland's fragile peace 'all about the border'

The DUP forms a crucial part in May's government. If it chooses to withdraw from a coalition government with the premier's Conservatives, it would turn May's government into a minority one.

The Irish border remains one of the biggest issues for Brexit negotiators on both sides of the divorce, along with the rights of EU citizens in the UK and trade relations. Scotland and London, both which voted against Brexit, have called for special status that would allow them to remain in the EU's single market, similar to proposals offered on Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's changing border

The Irish Free State

Britain's response to Irish demands for independence was devolution within the UK, or home rule. Pro-British Unionists didn't want to be governed by Dublin, so two parliaments were set up, for Northern and Southern Ireland. However, nationalists still pushed for full independence and in 1922 Southern Ireland was superseded by the Irish Free State as enshrined in the Anglo-Irish Treaty (pictured).

Northern Ireland's changing border

The Six Counties

Northern Ireland had been carved in a way that allowed Protestant loyalists to stay in control, but also ensure the region was large enough to be viable. It included four majority-Protestant counties in the ancient province of Ulster, as well as the two Catholic nationalist counties. Three of Ulster's counties — Donegal, Monaghan and Cavan — were placed on the Southern Ireland side of the border.

Northern Ireland's changing border

No laughing matter?

Involving members of the British, Irish and devolved Belfast governments, a 1924-25 boundary commission looked at the whether the border should stay where it was. It broadly remained in the same place, often cutting through communities across its 310 miles. The Spike Milligan novel "Puckoon," made into a film (above), charted the problems brought to a fictional Irish village divided by the border.

Northern Ireland's changing border

Roadside customs checks

The new border's checkpoints initially regulated the movement of certain goods, with movement of people being free. However, the Anglo-Irish Trade War of the 1930s saw tariffs imposed on foods and later coal and steel. The dispute ended in 1936, but Ireland still pursued protectionist policies into the 1950s. Customs stayed in place until the advent of the EU Single Market in 1993.

Northern Ireland's changing border

Bloody legacy

With an escalation in fighting in Northern Ireland in 1969, British troops were sent to the province, fueling nationalist resentment. The border was heavily guarded to stop weapons smuggling from the Republic. The South Armagh stretch was particularly notorious. The Irish Republican Army's South Armagh Brigade is thought to have killed about 165 British troops and police from 1970 to 1997.

Northern Ireland's changing border

South of the Border

The border was also policed by the Republic of Ireland's security forces, who intensified their anti-terror efforts in the late 1970s. They worked with the British, but the working relationship was not an easy one. To communicate with Irish counterparts, British troops at one time had to speak to the Northern Irish police, who would contact the Irish police, who would then call the Irish army.

Northern Ireland's changing border

Watchtowers and rifle sights

Despite the end of customs in 1993, the threat of terror still loomed and the border remained militarized, with watchtowers and soldiers. After the 1998 Good Friday Agreement — which brought back devolved government to Northern Ireland and sought to address issues such as policing and paramilitarism — the IRA eventually halted its campaign of violence as border security disappeared.

Northern Ireland's changing border

Barely noticeable

The border today is as invisible as it has ever been, with free movement of traffic between the Republic and the North. The picture shows two policemen, one British, one Irish, watching as a foreign leg of the 2014 Giro d'Italia crosses the border in Armagh.

Northern Ireland's changing border

Anything to declare?

There are fears that Brexit would make a hard border necessary, given that Britain appears set to leave the EU Customs Union and Single Market. The border issue is one of three conditions laid out by the EU for trade talks to begin. Brussels says there must be no hard border. Campaigners, like those pictured above, have sought to remind the public of what such a frontier would look like.

ls/tj (Reuters, dpa)