LONDON - Talks to end the U.K.’s Brexit stalemate appeared deadlocked Friday, with neither Prime Minister Theresa May nor the main opposition leader shifting from their entrenched positions.
May has been meeting with politicians from several parties in a bid to find a way forward after her European Union divorce deal was rejected by Parliament this week.
But she is unwilling to move her “red lines,” which include taking the U.K. out of the bloc’s customs union. And Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn refuses to meet with May unless she rules out the possibility of Britain leaving the EU with no deal.
May, who narrowly defeated a no-confidence vote triggered by Corbyn this week, said Thursday it was “not within the government’s power to rule out no-deal” because by law the U.K. will leave the EU on March 29 “unless Parliament either agrees a deal with the EU or the U.K. … chooses to stay in the EU permanently.”
The political chaos has spurred EU nations to step up preparations for a disorderly Brexit. France and other countries are spending millions, hiring thousands of workers and issuing emergency decrees to cope with the possibility that the U.K. will crash out of the bloc, sparking major disruptions to travel and trade.
On Friday, a group of high-profile Germans made an emotional appeal to the U.K. to stay in the bloc. A letter published in the Times of London said that “without your great nation, this Continent would not be what it is today: a community defined by freedom and prosperity.” It went on to list things Germans would miss about the U.K., among them “tea with milk” and “going to the pub after work.”
The signatories include Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, Airbus chief Tom Enders and former German national soccer player Jens Lehmann.
Amid the political impasse, May’s domestic opponents are gathering. Ex-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson used a speech Friday to accuse May of lacking the “gumption” to get a favorable Brexit deal from the EU.
Johnson, who harbors ambitions of becoming party leader and prime minister, said May should use the crushing defeat of her withdrawal deal in Parliament as a cudgel to force the EU to give the U.K. a better deal.
He dodged a question of whether he would support May as party leader if a sudden general election is called, saying one wouldn’t be necessary.
“Go back to Brussels and get a better deal,” he urged May, even though EU leaders have said the withdrawal agreement won’t be renegotiated.
May will publish her revived Brexit blueprint on Monday, before lawmakers debate it — and doubtless try to alter it — on Jan. 29.
In neighboring France, the prime minister inspected his country’s preparedness for a no-deal Brexit, visiting the Eurotunnel complex and meeting with small businesses on the English Channel coast.
Prime Minister Edouard Philippe made the trip to the Calais area Friday under heavy security. A day earlier, the French government activated its contingency plans for the possibility that the U.K. leaves the European Union on March 29 without rules in place for cross-border trade and travel.
France and other European countries are hiring thousands of customs and border agents and bolstering security at airports and ports to gird for a cliff-edge Brexit.
France is paying special attention to the Eurotunnel beneath the English Channel, which carries millions of passengers annually and freight trucks that play a significant role in the U.K.’s trade with the continent.