British and European negotiators yesterday resumed intense negotiations on a draft Brexit deal after late-night talks brought them closer, but failed to confirm an elusive breakthrough.
News that Britain has softened its stance on the customs status of Northern Ireland to clinch an accord at this week’s European summit had raised hopes that a chaotic “no deal” Brexit” could be avoided, sending the British pound higher, but a marathon late-night negotiating session in Brussels brought them to the eve of the meeting with some distance still to go to agree the wording of a treaty to govern the terms of Britain’s planned Oct. 31 departure from the EU.
“The teams worked into the night and continue to make progress. The teams will meet again this morning,” a British official said, describing the talks as “constructive.”
Talks restarted at about 9:30am, an EU official said.
A senior European diplomat said that the negotiators had begun to transcribe the British offer into a legal text that could eventually go before the 28 EU national leaders at their European Council summit, which begins today, but some important differences remain.
Another EU official speaking on condition of anonymity played down hopes that any text would be finalized yesterday.
Even if a text is prepared for the leaders this week — or if, as many observers in Brussels expect, an extraordinary summit is called later in the month — any deal would have to be approved by a skeptical British parliament, which holds a special session on Saturday.
By agreeing to a form of customs boundary in the Irish Sea, Britain could allow Northern Ireland to remain under EU rules, prevent a return to a hard land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and salvage a negotiated withdrawal.
However, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson could struggle to convince Conservative euroskeptic lawmakers and his allies from Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to accept the concession.
Nevertheless, European Chief Negotiator for the UK Exiting the EU Michel Barnier and British Secretary of State for Exiting the EU Stephen Barclay judged that a deal was close enough to justify officials working into the early hours of yesterday morning.
Barnier had said a text must be on the table by yesterday if member state governments are to have a chance to consider it before the summit, because the 28 national leaders have said they would not debate the details of the agreement at their meeting.
However, if, as now seems likely, the deadline is missed, officials said talks could instead resume next week and a special summit be called just in time for Johnson to fulfill his pledge to lead Britain out of the bloc on Oct. 31.
European leaders have said that they would not let Britain use Northern Ireland as a back door to the single market and Barnier on Tuesday said that “it is high time to turn good intentions into legal text.”
DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC that she wanted to support a deal, but would not do so if she felt it divided Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
If no deal is reached by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a law demanding that he ask the EU to postpone Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous “no deal” departure.
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