Brexit: British Prime Minister Theresa May heads to Brussels

After days of intense talks on Brexit, British Prime Minister Theresa May rushed to Brussels Friday morning to meet with top European Union officials.

Talks between May’s Conservatives and their governing partner, the far-right Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), stretched late into Thursday night, according to a DUP lawmaker.

May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker will give a joint press conference at 7:30 a.m. local time (1:30 a.m. ET). Following May’s arrival, Juncker’s chief of staff Martin Selmayr tweeted a picture of white smoke — the sign used by the Vatican to signify the election of a new Pope.

The parties came close to a deal earlier this week on proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland’s border controls once the the UK leaves the European Union but it fell through after objections from the DUP.

London and Brussels have been engaged in intense negotiations over securing an agreement from the European Union that “sufficient progress” has been made on the UK’s withdrawal ahead of an EU leaders summit on December 14.

What’s on the table?

When Brexit negotiations began just under six months ago, the EU was clear on its position: It would not countenance any discussion about a future relationship with Britain until “sufficient progress” had been made on three issues:

— that Britain pay a substantial “divorce bill”
— that rights of European citizens in the UK are guaranteed
— and that there is no reinstatement of a hard border between Northern Ireland, which will leave the EU with the rest of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU

After tortuous negotiations, the two sides were close on the first two issues, in particular after the UK agreed to make a substantial payment to the EU budget, leaving the Irish border as the final stumbling block.

It is a historically delicate issue: the dismantling of border controls and infrastructure was a key plank of the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after years of sectarian conflict.

While London, Dublin and Brussels all appeared to be in favor of Northern Ireland remaining subject to key European regulations and laws, avoiding the need for border checks, May’s coalition partners weren’t having it.

After details of the draft deal leaked, DUP leader Arlene Foster gave a TV statement in which she said that her party “will not accept any form of regulatory divergence which separates Northern Ireland economically or politically from the rest of the United Kingdom.”

It’s unclear what kind of deal may have been reached with the DUP, but while May’s government is dependent on them to remain in power, the Northern Irish party also stands to lose a lot should the unsteady coalition collapse.

The DUP secured a £1.5 billion ($2 billion) funding deal for Northern Ireland when it agreed to support May, and the failure of the government would likely spark an election which may well bring Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to power, who will not be anywhere near as sympathetic to the far-right DUP.

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