Sat | Sep 26, 2020

Brexit divorce talks between UK and EU go down to the wire

Published:Monday | October 14, 2019 | 12:28 AM
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told Cabinet colleagues that it will require a “significant amount of work” to strike a Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), amid signs of progress in last-minute talks but also deep-seated scepticism about the chances of an agreement.

Britain is due to leave the 28-nation bloc on October 31, and attempts to find a deal have foundered over plans for keeping an open border between EU member Ireland and the United Kingdom’s (UK) Northern Ireland. The challenge of maintaining an invisible border — something that underpinned both the local economy and the region’s peace deal — has dominated Brexit discussions for three years, ever since UK voters chose in 2016 to leave the EU.

But negotiations intensified last week after Johnson and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said they could see a “pathway” to a divorce agreement that avoids a no-deal Brexit, something economists say would hurt both the UK and EU economies.

Gaps remain

Both sides say that substantial gaps remain and it’s unclear whether they can be bridged in time for an orderly British departure at the end of this month. A crucial EU summit, the last scheduled chance to strike a deal, begins Thursday.

The European Commission’s EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed ambassadors of the remaining 27 countries Sunday. The commission said in a statement that there had been “constructive technical-level” talks with the UK but “a lot of work remains to be done”.

It said discussions would continue today.

Johnson’s office said he told the Cabinet on Sunday in a conference call “that a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there, and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31” even if there is no agreement. If a Brexit deal is reached, it still needs to be approved by both British and European parliaments. Many British lawmakers — on both pro-Brexit and pro-EU sides of the debate — remain unconvinced.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sunday that his party was unlikely to support any deal agreed upon by Johnson.

Lawmaker Nigel Dodds of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party — which props up Johnson’s Conservative minority government — has rejected one suggested compromise, in which Northern Ireland stayed in a customs partnership with the EU in order to remove the need for border checks. The DUP strongly opposes any measures that would treat Northern Ireland differently than the rest of the UK.

But other Brexit supporters signalled they could back such a deal. House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg, a strong Brexiteer, said a “compromise will inevitably be needed, something even the staunchest Leavers recognise, albeit unwillingly.”