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    The Union Jack (bottom) and the European Union flag are seen flying, at the border of Gibraltar with Spain, in the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, historically claimed by Spain, June 27, 2016, after Britain voted to leave the European Union in the EU Brexit referendum

    Agree to Disagree? EU Leaders Head to Austria for Brexit Discussions

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    All 27 EU member state leaders are gathering in Salzburg, Austria for a two-day summit to discuss a number of pressing issues. On the debate program are internal security, migration, and the enduringly knotty topic of Brexit.

    The event's official agenda repeatedly downplays the get together's significance — the phrase ‘informal' crops up repeatedly — although few mainstream media outlets seem to have taken the hint, with many reports suggesting the meeting could well be a watershed moment in Brexit negotiations.

    Those who have kept even vague track of developments in the saga since June 2016 are likely to have heard all the hype before — since that potentially fateful juncture, gatherings of EU member state representatives, no matter how low-key or seemingly inconsequential, are almost invariably hailed by pundits as a likely ‘turning point' or ‘breakthrough' in secession discussions.

    British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) shakes hands with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker prior to a Brexit negotiation meeting on December 4, 2017 at the European Commission in Brussels
    © AFP 2018 / JOHN THYS
    British Prime Minister Theresa May (L) shakes hands with European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker prior to a Brexit negotiation meeting on December 4, 2017 at the European Commission in Brussels

    To date, these assorted rendezvous have seemingly produced little clarity or concord on key areas of disagreement between Westminster and Brussels, such as the fate of EU nationals residing in the UK (and vice versa), trade, membership of the single market, and much, much more.

    Lack of the Irish

    Still, Brexit looms large on the event schedule, with a dedicated 'working lunch' centered on the topic, although Prime Minister Theresa May won't be attending. Talks will focus on "the EU-UK future partnership", "how to organise the final phase of the talks", and "the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland".

    The final point of consideration has unexpectedly proven to be one of the most significant bones of contention in negotiations. When Britain leaves the EU, it intends to take Northern Ireland with it, by default creating a land border with the EU, and the potential need for passport and customs checks, and tariffs, for goods, services or people crossing the boundary in either direction.

    Anti-Brexit billboards are seen on the northern side of the border between Newry, in Northern Ireland, and Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
    © AP Photo / Niall Carson
    Anti-Brexit billboards are seen on the northern side of the border between Newry, in Northern Ireland, and Dundalk, in the Republic of Ireland, on Wednesday, July 18, 2018.
    The EU's initial position was Northern Ireland must effectively remain within the bloc, but this stance has softened over time, with leaders recently suggesting a ‘backstop' — Belfast remaining in the single market and customs union, with the UK responsible for policing who and what travels from the emerald isle to mainland Britain. However, May has resolutely rejected the proposal, suggesting it amounts to a demand for an "external border" between parts of the UK — she nonetheless remains amenable to a ‘backstop', but only if it applies to the UK, and only then temporarily.

    Halfway House

    Without an agreement, there'll be no Brexit deal — and the "EU-UK future partnership" appears similarly intractable. Despite the passage of over two years, the pair is still yet to offer a clear vision on what form their post-secession relationship should and will take.

    May remains committed to a cherry-picked approach — maintaining alignment with the bloc in certain areas, such as security, defense and goods, but ending sizeable contributions to the EU budget and freedom of movement, and withdrawing from the single market and jurisdiction of European Courts. The EU has consistently argued such divisions aren't feasible — a non-member state can't enjoy free movement of goods and capital without free movement of services and labour, or benefit from cross-border cooperation on security and policing without EU courts having a judicial role.

    People demonstrate against Brexit on a balcony in London, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, as Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivers a speech focusing on Britain leaving the EU. The Foreign Office says Johnson will use a speech Wednesday to argue for an outward-facing, liberal and global Britain after the U.K. leaves the bloc
    © AP Photo / Frank Augstein
    People demonstrate against Brexit on a balcony in London, Wednesday, Feb. 14, 2018, as Britain's Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson delivers a speech focusing on Britain leaving the EU. The Foreign Office says Johnson will use a speech Wednesday to argue for "an outward-facing, liberal and global Britain" after the U.K. leaves the bloc
    A solution to this intransigence has nonetheless been mooted, although it's only transitory — the pair will simply agree to disagree, finalizing Britain's exit and a two-year transition period, before seriously considering a future relationship. While a political declaration will likely accompany the announcement of a divorce deal, detail is likely to be lacking — a rough non-binding outline subject to revision, change and reversal.

    Deal or No Deal

    When that announcement comes is up in the air — the previously agreed deadline of October is acknowledged by the EU and UK to be unrealistic — although will be discussed at the working lunch.

    For weeks it's been rumored a conclusive summit on Brexit will be convened in November, which the event agenda seems to confirm. At that meeting, a draft withdrawal agreement could be presented, allowing May time to secure agreement from Parliament, and ready the country for its timetabled March 29, 2019, departure.

    Nigel Farage, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) member and MEP, addresses the European Parliament during a debate on Brexit priorities and the upcomming talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU, in Strasbourg, France, April 5, 2017.
    © REUTERS / Vincent Kessler
    Nigel Farage, United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) member and MEP, addresses the European Parliament during a debate on Brexit priorities and the upcomming talks on the UK's withdrawal from the EU, in Strasbourg, France, April 5, 2017.
    However, a parliamentary green light is contingent on MPs rubber stamping any deal the Prime Minister finally brings back to Westminster, which is far from assured — if an agreement can't be struck, the UK may well simply fall out of the EU. Quotes from Donald Tusk provided in the document acknowledge this eventuality — the European Council President states that while "limiting the damage caused by Brexit is our shared interest," a 'no deal' scenario "is still quite possible."

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    Brexit impasse, Brexit blues, Brexit negotiations, Brexit 'deal or no deal', Brexit, Brexit, European Union, Donald Tusk, Theresa May, Europe, Northern Ireland, United Kingdom, Ireland, Austria
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