UK and EU closing in on ‘possible’ Brexit deal

UK and EU closing in on ‘possible’ Brexit deal

Still, officials skeptical text will be ready in time for key European summit this week, with gaps remaining on issue of customs along Irish border with Northern Ireland

Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights stand next to pro-Brexit banners outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)
Anti-Brexit protesters with signs and EU flags lit up with fairy lights stand next to pro-Brexit banners outside the Houses of Parliament in London on September 9, 2019 as MPs debate. (Tolga Akmen / AFP)

BRUSSELS, Belgium (AFP) — Britain and the EU were seen to be closing in on a detailed draft Brexit deal on Tuesday, although officials voiced skepticism it would be ready in time for a key European summit this week.

The pound jumped to its highest level in five months on cautious optimism voiced by both sides that an outline agreement could soon be struck.

However, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, speaking in a Dublin media conference, warned that “the gap was still quite wide, particularly on the issue of customs” along the Irish border with Northern Ireland.

An EU official told AFP late Tuesday: “Talks are ongoing. I have no update right now.”

EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a text must be on the table by early Wednesday if it is to be put before leaders at the two-day EU summit starting Thursday.

In this file photo taken on June 8, 2018, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks at a press conference following negotiations at the EU headquarters in Brussels. (John Thys/AFP)

A special sitting of the British parliament is scheduled for Saturday.

If the early-Wednesday deadline is missed, officials said talks could always resume next week and a special summit be called just in time for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fulfill his pledge to lead Britain out of the bloc on October 31.

One European source told AFP that it was “possible” a preliminary legal text could be reached perhaps by late Tuesday. But another was unable to confirm any breakthrough.

Varadkar said: “Whether we’ll be able to conclude a revised withdrawal agreement, which after all is an international treaty, in time for the summit on Thursday, that’s as of now unclear.”

‘Positive momentum’

European leaders are firm that, while they are keen for a deal, they will not let Britain use Northern Ireland as a back door to the single market.

They have been urging London to go beyond broad proposals on the table if a deal is to be done this month. Johnson is said to have given ground on customs rules for Northern Ireland in a bid to reach a formal text.

Barnier said as he arrived in Luxembourg to brief EU ministers that he was cautiously optimistic but that “it is high time to turn good intentions into legal text.”

(L-R) Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Premier Giuseppe Conte and President of the European Council Donald Tusk pose during a G7 coordination meeting with the Group of Seven European members at the Hotel du Palais in Biarritz, southwestern France on August 24, 2019. (Markus Schreiber / POOL / AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron apparently shared the guarded optimism, with an aide telling reporters there was “positive momentum” behind the talks.

Downing Street said Johnson had called Macron and had a “constructive” and “good discussion.”

“We want to make progress towards securing a deal as soon as possible and we want to make progress ahead of the EU council on Thursday,” a spokesman said.

But German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined why EU officials are driving a hard bargain and hoping Britain will commit to a “level playing field” in post-Brexit trade and commerce.

“One thing is clear, Britain will develop into another competitor on the doorstep of Europe,” she told industrialists. “And therefore the EU will be challenged to become more competitive and to assume geopolitical responsibility.”

Glimmer of hope

“The last moment is always a bit later than you think,” one German government official told AFP, suggesting that Brexit day would have to be postponed beyond the end of the month if talks are to succeed.

“I am skeptical that we will have a full agreement tomorrow [Wednesday] on a legal text… the question is whether the work can be done in the next few days or whether it will take another two months.”

Anti Brexit campaigner Steve Bray walks on the beach to pose for a photograph during the Labour Party Conference at the Brighton Centre in Brighton, England, September 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

British Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay joined Barnier in Luxembourg in what was seen as a positive sign for the talks, and said “a deal is still very possible.”

Barclay later tweeted a picture of himself with Irish, Polish, Greek, Swedish and Portuguese counterparts, saying they shared his desire to “get Brexit done.”

More than three years after Britain’s 2016 referendum vote to leave, talks remain stuck on how to avoid customs checks on the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.

The EU has reservations about London’s proposed customs arrangements and the role for Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly in giving consent to the plans.

“Johnson has modified his original proposals to the effect that he has clearly stated that there will be no customs border on the Irish border,” a European diplomat told AFP.

If no deal is reached by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a British law demanding he ask the EU to postpone Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous “no deal” departure.

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