Britain, EU closer to possible agreement on Brexit: EU diplomats

By Gabriela Baczynska

By Gabriela Baczynska

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union and Britain are moving towards a separate legal statement in which the bloc would again stress the temporary nature of the so-called Brexit backstop for the Irish border, diplomats in Brussels said.

They spoke of a "parallel declaration" or "interpretative instrument" on the backstop, a day after British Prime Minister Theresa May and the head of the European Union's executive, Jean-Claude Juncker, met in Brussels to seek a way out of the Brexit deadlock.

The backstop is an insurance policy designed to avoid border controls between EU member Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland after Brexit. Some UK lawmakers fear the backstop could trap the country in a permanent customs union with the EU.

"We are also looking at updating the declaration on future EU-UK ties after Brexit to give more prominence to the 'alternative arrangements' sought by Britain," said one EU diplomat who deals with Brexit.

"But May won't get any firm wording before Feb. 28."

A second diplomat, briefed on the May-Juncker talks on Wednesday evening, confirmed the EU would only signal this was the direction of travel before the British prime minister faces another round of Brexit votes in the UK parliament.

"The parliament needs first to indicate clearly this option would then gain their support in the form of ratifying the Brexit deal. If they do that, we hone out exact words in the second week of March and it goes to the summit for approval."

Otherwise, the summit of all EU national leaders that is due on March 21-22 in Brussels, would have to agree a Brexit delay for Britain beyond March 29, the sources said, to delay the worst-case-scenario of an abrupt split without a divorce deal.

(Reporting by Gabriela Baczynska, editing by Robin Emmott and Gareth Jones)