British Prime Minister Theresa May will continue on Wednesday her efforts to garner the supports she needs to allow her minority government to survive as European Union officials grow disgruntled in the delay in the start of Brexit talks.
Following the loss of her parliamentary majority in last week’s polls, May is now desperately seeking the support of the 10 MPs from Northern Ireland’s ultra-conservative Democratic Unionist Party.
An initial round of talks between May and DUP leader Arlene Foster ended with no agreement on Tuesday, although both sides said they were hopeful, with talks to resume Wednesday.
“I hope that we can reach a conclusion sooner than later,” Foster said.
On a visit to Paris on Tuesday evening where she met with French President Emmanuel Macron, May described the talks as “productive”.
The talks are being closely watched in European capitals as they could delay the expected start of Brexit negotiations next week, as well as change Britain’s entire approach to its EU withdrawal.
May has dismissed calls to resign following the dismal election result after calling a vote three years early in the hope of bolstering her slim majority ahead of the Brexit talks.
Her gamble failed spectacularly.
A lackluster campaign saw her high approval rating slip away, and support for her “hard Brexit” strategy — pulling out of the European single market and customs union — now hangs in the balance.
The DUP is believed to be more favorable to a “soft Brexit” that would keep Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic of Ireland free-flowing.
The negotiations with the DUP revolve around support from the party on a vote-by-vote basis in parliament, rather than a formal coalition government.
But a deal with the DUP also risks destabilizing Northern Ireland by increasing the influence of pro-British unionists. They have struggled for years with Irish nationalists, who want the British province to join a united Ireland.
Former British Prime Minister John Major said he was concerned May’s plan to govern with the support of the DUP could pitch the province back into turmoil by persuading “hard men” on both sides of the divide to return to violence.
Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein said the prospect of a British agreement with the DUP was causing anxiety and fear.
While the DUP are deeply euroskeptic, they have balked at some of the practical implications of a hard Brexit — including a potential loss of a “frictionless border” with the Republic of Ireland — and talks will touch on efforts to minimize the potential damage to Northern Ireland.
The Irish republican Sinn Fein party — which won seven seats in the election although MPs traditionally do not take up their seats in protest — is also wary of the alliance.
“This new arrangement is very unsettling and people are concerned and worried about what it may mean, or what promises may be given. There’s a lot of anxiety,” Sinn Fein MP Michelle Glidernew told AFP.
As May attempts to cobble together a majority, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier warned that time was passing in an interview on Tuesday.
“It’s passing quicker than anyone believes… That’s why we’re ready to start very quickly. I can’t negotiate with myself,” he told The Financial Times.
With the two-year clock on Brexit ticking since March, when a letter from May formally started proceedings, Barnier dismissed the suggestion of postponing the negotiations and said such a delay would only prompt further instability.
The European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, also expressed his frustration.
“We are impatiently waiting for the negotiating position of the UK gov(ernment). The current uncertainty cannot continue,” he said on Twitter.
Brexit minister David Davis has insisted the approach to the EU divorce has not changed, but May has recognized that a broader consensus needs to be built for Brexit and has made clear she would listen to all wings of the party on the issue.
She will have to manage conflicting demands from within her own party, including a proposal for business groups and lawmakers from all parties to agree a national position for Britain’s most complex negotiations since World War Two.
Former Prime Minister David Cameron said May needed to listen to rival political parties, and that there would be pressure for a softer Brexit.
May faces a difficult balancing act. Divisions over Europe helped sink the premierships of Margaret Thatcher, Major and Cameron, and many of her lawmakers and party membership support a sharp break with the EU.
The performance of the British economy could also influence perceptions of Brexit. Government bond prices suffered heavy losses on Tuesday after consumer price inflation jumped to 2.9 percent in May.
The Times newspaper said finance minister Philip Hammond would push May not to leave the customs union – an arrangement which guarantees tariff-free trade within the bloc but prohibits members from striking third-party trade deals.