• Saturday, Nov 16, 2019
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EU, Britain to hold intense negotiations on Brexit deal as departure date nears

  • Published at 02:01 am October 12th, 2019
Anti-Brexit protesters hold flags and placards opposite the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain on October 17, 2018 Reuters

Some officials expressed guarded optimism, while financial markets and institutions banks were buoyed by the latest pronouncements

The European Union and Britain agreed yesterday to hold intense talks over the next few days in a bid to secure a deal over Britain's departure from the bloc, but arrangements over British-Irish border controls remain at issue, the EU said.

A flurry of activity has brought the fraught bargaining process to a new level as Britain's scheduled departure date of October 31 grows ever closer, but it is still uncertain whether the two sides can make a breakthrough before then.

Some officials expressed guarded optimism, while financial markets and institutions banks were buoyed by the latest pronouncements. Sterling jumped to a three-month high.

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his British counterpart Stephen Barclay held what both sides called a "constructive" meeting in Brussels yesterday morning.

That followed a statement from the British and Irish prime ministers on Thursday that they had found "a pathway" to a possible deal.

After Barnier briefed ambassadors from the 27 countries that will remain in the EU, the European Commission said the two sides had agreed to intensify discussions over the coming days and the Europeans would take stock again on Monday.

"The EU's position remains the same: there must be a legally operative solution in the Withdrawal Agreement that avoids a hard border on the island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and safeguards the integrity of the Single Market," the Commission said in a statement.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement ended three decades of sectarian and political conflict in Northern Ireland that killed more than 3,500 people.

A diplomat and an EU official said Barnier had told member states that Britain had changed its position to now accept that the proposed replacement to the so-called "backstop" cannot erect a customs border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland.

"On customs, they admitted that the solution cannot result in the creation of a border in Ireland," the diplomat said, adding that this was the reason Barnier gave national envoys in Brussels to justify going into intensified talks with Britain over the weekend.

Separately, two senior EU diplomats told Reuters the possible solution could include two elements: keeping Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom's customs regime and, at the same time, ensuring that customs and regulatory checks were carried out together.

Under an earlier British proposal, the regulatory border would run in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The sources said they understood that customs checks could be carried out there as well under the plan now under discussions.

That marked a change from the latest EU-UK discussions when London proposed dispersed customs checks across the whole island of Ireland, which the bloc rejected as unworkable and not offering enough protection to its single market.

One European diplomat indicated to Reuters however that there was not too much hope on the EU side that a divorce deal could be sealed before the end of the month.

"It's a tunnel with a very small light at the end of it," a second diplomat said.

Barnier told reporters as he left his meeting with Barclay: "Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience."

In Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron, asked by a Reuters reporter if there was a "glimmer of hope" regarding a Brexit agreement, replied: "Let us wait for the next few hours."

EU ministers convene in Luxembourg on Tuesday for a last preparatory meeting before an EU summit next Thursday and Friday.