Hopes for negotiated Brexit deal fade as deadline draws closer

Initial optimism in Brussels that Johnson's determined style would lead to a breakthrough has collapsed and many EU officials fear a chaotic "no-deal" departure is now imminent.

Brexit

Hopes for a negotiated Brexit deal were fading Friday as EU negotiator Michel Barnier separately met senior British and Irish ministers for another round of inconclusive talks.

Britain is due to leave the European Union in less than five weeks. Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to hammer out a new divorce agreement in time for a European summit on October 17.

But his negotiator, Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay, has yet to present Brussels with any legal text for the eventual treaty, and time is running out. “I think there are still significant gaps between both sides,” Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said after his talks with Barnier.

Mina Andreeva told reporters that the EU side was working “day and night” for a deal, but warned that “the more progress before the European Council the better”.

“And until there is a serious proposal in writing that can be the basis for a negotiation then the gaps that are wide at the moment will remain.” Barclay adopted a more optimistic tone after his meeting but was unable to point to any concrete progress.

“Well, I think there’s still a long way to go. I think we are coming to the moment of truth in these negotiations, we will see if there is political will on both sides,” Barclay said. After meeting Coveney and then Barclay separately in EU headquarters, Barnier issued a reminder of the EU position.

“Michel Barnier stressed that it is essential that there is a fully operational solution in the Withdrawal Agreement to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the all-island economy and the integrity of the Single Market,” the EU said.

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“The EU remains open and willing to examine any workable and legally operative proposals that meet all these objectives.” This came as Johnson continues to insist that the deal must do away with the so-called “backstop” clause that his predecessor Theresa May agreed to.

That measure keeps the UK — or at least Northern Ireland — in the EU customs union until a way is found to keep the Irish border open. But Johnson and the pro-Brexit MPs who rejected the previous withdrawal agreement argue that is a trap to keep Britain in the EU orbit.

The British leader, who has been in office since July and has yet to win a parliamentary vote, insists he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than delay Brexit. “We are committed to securing a deal. We’re committed to leaving on October 31, but that deal has to be without the backstop. Parliament has rejected the backstop three times,” Barclay said.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to hammer out a new divorce agreement in time for a European summit on October 17.

“I have been very clear with Michel Barnier and Taskforce 50 in the negotiations, the backstop has to go, but with good will on both sides a deal can be done.”

Working ‘day and night’

Initial optimism in Brussels that Johnson’s determined style would lead to a breakthrough has collapsed and many EU officials fear a chaotic “no-deal” departure is now imminent.

They privately scorn Johnson’s plan to somehow win over EU leaders to a backstop-free accord at the October 17 EU summit, pointing out that treaties — which are legally binding texts — are not negotiated at such gatherings.

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Traditionally, the text of any agreement is worked out between the negotiators beforehand and — when the member states’ senior diplomatic “sherpas” have given the nod — the leaders come in to sign it.

In the case of Brexit negotiations, under the so-called Article 50 process of the EU treaty, the British leader is not even in the room when his 27 counterparts discuss the divorce plan.

But the EU is keen to avoid taking the blame for any collapse in the talks. A spokeswoman for the European Commission stressed Friday that their side would remain flexible to the end.

This came as Johnson continues to insist that the deal must do away with the so-called “backstop” clause that his predecessor Theresa May agreed to.

Mina Andreeva told reporters that the EU side was working “day and night” for a deal, but warned that “the more progress before the European Council the better”.

If there is no Brexit deal before October 31, Britain could ask for an extension, its third. But Johnson insists that he will not do this, despite parliament passing a law obliging him to make such a request.

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Some European leaders have expressed scepticism about the idea of postponing Britain’s departure yet again, and Coveney — whose country has much to lose economically from a no-deal — suggested they would need convincing.

“From an Irish perspective, we, of course, think that an extension is preferable to no deal,” he said. “But I think there would need to be good reason behind that ask for an extension.”

AFP with additional input by GVS News Desk.

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