EU's Barnier says Brexit deal still possible this week
Negotiator says it's time for U.K. to ' turn good intentions into a legal text'
A Brexit divorce deal is still possible ahead of Thursday's European Union summit, but the U.K. government needs to move ahead with more compromises to seal an agreement in the next few hours, the bloc said Tuesday.
Even though questions remain, diplomats made it clear that both sides were for the first time within touching distance since an earlier Brexit withdrawal plan fell apart in the House of Commons in March.
EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said at a meeting of EU ministers that the main challenge now is to turn the new government proposals on the complex Irish border issue into something binding.
EU member Ireland has a land border with the U.K.'s Northern Ireland, and both want to keep that border invisible, for economic and peace treaty reasons. But once the U.K. leaves the bloc, that Irish border would turn into an external EU border that the bloc wants to keep secure.
Barnier said it's "high time to turn good intentions into a legal text." He wants a clear answer by Wednesday morning to tell EU capitals what should be decided once the bloc's two-day summit kicks off on Thursday.
"Even if an agreement will be difficult — more and more difficult, we think — it is still possible this week," Barnier said.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesperson, James Slack, said Tuesday the United Kingdom wants to nail down a Brexit deal "as soon as possible and we want to make progress ahead of the EU council [summit] on Thursday."
Slack said Tuesday: "We are working hard. The prime minister is aware of the time constraints that we are under.
To further boost the momentum, Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss where more movement could be found, Slack said.
Slack said Johnson told Macron that in advance of the EU council summit, U.K. officials would "continue to work hard on securing a deal."
A French official acknowledged "positive momentum" after the phone call between the two leaders.
He said a divorce deal is possible, but not guaranteed, as Brexit negotiators were still having talks Tuesday.
'This is difficult, but it is doable'
The EU summit this week, ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit deadline, was long considered one of the last possible chances to approve a divorce deal to accommodate that deadline.
Johnson insists his country will leave at the end of the month with or without a deal, but lawmakers have been adamant on avoiding a no-deal Brexit, passing a bill in September that would force Johnson to seek an extension to Article 50 if no agreement with the bloc can be reached before the deadline.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had a long, intense talk with Barnier early Tuesday, said the EU believes "this is difficult, but it is doable." He said Barnier addressed EU ministers and "did point to progress in the last number of days where the gaps have been narrowed."
A senior German official wouldn't rule out a Brexit agreement in principle by Wednesday afternoon, but stressed the importance of time-consuming specifications.
"The basis for our decisions are legal texts in which the details are settled," the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, said in Berlin. "But there has been progress, and as always in these negotiations the biggest progress happens over the final metres."
Late Monday, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the U.K. proposals to keep the Irish border protected from smuggling and fraud once it leaves the bloc were insufficient.
"The U.K. proposal contained some steps forward but not enough to guarantee that the internal market will be protected," Blok said.
One EU diplomat said for things to work, technical negotiators would need to finish their text and make it available by Wednesday morning so European governments have time to assess them.
EU ministers insisted it was time for Johnson to make the next move — and he seemed to be listening. Besides the call with Macron, Johnson shifted the weekly cabinet meeting from Tuesday to Wednesday so he could give his ministers a better idea of Brexit progress.
If talks fail or stumble ahead of the EU summit, there could always be an extraordinary meeting just ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit departure — or the Brexit deadline could be extended again.
"There will be progress tomorrow. The question is how big this progress will be," the German official said. "Is this progress so great that work is still needed, but this work can be done in the next few days? Or is the progress such that two more months' work is needed?"
Brexit negotiators, politicians and ordinary Europeans were all waiting for the answers.