PARIS (Reuters) - France believes a Brexit deal is within reach but there is now a real need for urgency in negotiations, a presidency official said on Tuesday, striking a firm-but-conciliatory tone toward British Prime Minister Theresa May on the eve of an EU summit.
With less than six months before Britain leaves the European Union, Brexit talks have reached a stalemate over the so-called Irish backstop, a fallback plan to ensure there is no return to a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
The official in President Emmanuel Macron’s office said that while a divorce settlement could still be reached, it looked unlikely to happen before Wednesday night.
“The 27 (EU states) must send a message of openness but also of concern and the need for urgency, so that negotiators resume talks not in November but immediately and find a deal,” the official said.
“The right message is to say: ‘a deal is possible, but we are in a hurry and we should finalize a withdrawal agreement with a backstop quickly’.”
An extension of the March 29 deadline, when Britain officially leaves the EU, is “not desirable”, the official added.
At the last summit in Austria, Macron called May’s so-called Chequers plan “unacceptable” and denounced pro-Brexit campaigners as “liars”.
Macron insists any deal should preserve the integrity of the EU’s single market. He and others rejected Chequers because it would give UK-based firms free access to the single market for trade in goods while exempting them from EU rules.
But if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal, customs checks would be required.
“At some point we’ll need a pragmatic solution,” the official said. “Some form of checks will have to be done somewhere, that’s what we’re working on at the moment.”
“Some checks already exist,” the official said. “If we turn it into an issue that is 100 percent symbolic and political on both sides, then we’re stuck.”
“But there can also be a bit of pragmatism, with a backstop stating that Northern Ireland can be aligned with all single market rules and some checks exist between Northern Ireland and Britain,” the official said.
The presidency official dismissed suggestions in British media that Paris was taking a particularly tough stance against London and said there would always be a British temptation to “blame the frogs”.
‘Frogs’ is an old British slang term for French people.
“But the truth is France is not on its own in these negotiations,” the official said. “Franco-British tensions are a classic fantasy.”
Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Richard Lough and Gareth Jones