Brexit deadlock after May offers 'nothing new' at crucial EU summit

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British Prime Minister Theresa May offered "nothing new" in her presentation to EU leaders at a critical summit in Brussels, Belgium, the head of the European Parliament said Wednesday. | Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images

(CNN) — European leaders have dropped plans for a special November summit to complete a Brexit deal because of a lack of progress in negotiations, and have ramped up preparations for a chaotic split.

British Prime Minister Theresa May offered "nothing new" in a presentation to EU leaders at a critical meeting in Brussels, Belgium, the head of the European Parliament said Wednesday.

EU leaders ordered negotiations to continue, and left open the possibility that a November summit could yet take place if a breakthrough can be reached, two EU sources told CNN. But they also ordered EU officials to intensify their preparations for a "no-deal" scenario.

The outcome offered a breathing space of sorts to the embattled British Prime Minister, who is under pressure in the UK from Brexiters who feel she has conceded too much to Europe, and from Remainers who fear Britain is on track to crash out of the EU without a deal.

But there is an impasse with the clock ticking to Britain's exit from the EU at the end of March.

May spoke for around 15 minutes on Wednesday evening, delivering a "message of goodwill," but it was short on substance, said Antonio Tajani, president of the European Parliament, who was in the room for the address.

May struck an optimistic tone, telling Tajani and the 27 EU leaders that "we've shown we can do difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident for a good outcome and the last stage requires trust and leadership on both sides," according to the Prime Minister's official spokesperson.

Tajani said both sides discussed the idea of extending a Brexit transition period from 21 months to 33 months. EU leaders have said they would be open to the idea in order to avoid the enforcement of a backstop arrangement for Northern Ireland. Such an arrangement would go down badly with Brexiters in Britain who believe that the UK would remain stuck in EU limbo -- unable to influence policymaking but still paying billions of euros a year into the bloc.

When May arrived for the summit, she was pressed about the possibility of an extension to the transition but would not be drawn on the subject.

After her presentation, May left the summit and the remaining 27 had a working dinner with presentations from the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and the president of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker. As they dined on pan-fried mushrooms, fillet of turbot and glazed vegetables, Barnier briefed them on the state of the negotiations and Juncker outlined the state of the European Commission's No Deal preparations.

According to an EU source, the leaders "reaffirmed their full confidence in Michel Barnier as the negotiator and their determination to stay united."

They decided not to call for an extraordinary Brexit summit in November, as had previously been discussed, because "not enough progress had been achieved" in the negotiations. The source added that the EU 27 "stands ready to convene a European Council if and when [Barnier] reports that decisive progress has been made."

In the complicated process of extricating the UK from the EU, many issues have been settled. But the biggest outstanding problem remains the issue of how to avoid the need to construct new infrastructure along the Irish border.

Removing checkpoints was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to the province after years of deadly violence.

European leaders advocate a "backstop" agreement, whereby failing other solutions, Northern Ireland will remain closely tied to European regulations on goods and services, including customs arrangements, after Britain leaves the bloc. May argues this amounts to splitting the UK into different customs zones, a political nonstarter.

"We need to work hard. The key point is the backstop, the Irish Republic. We want to protect the Irish Republic, for us it is a priority," Tajani said in a news conference. "I am optimistic, it's not easy ... but it is possible to achieve an agreement."

Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, has called the problem a "Gordian knot," with "no Alexander the Great" the break the impasse.

This story was first published on CNN.com, "Brexit deadlock after May offers 'nothing new' at crucial EU summit."