LUXEMBOURG CITY — Michel Barnier thinks a Brexit deal is difficult but still possible this week.
The EU’s chief negotiator told ministers on Tuesday the U.K. and the EU are yet to resolve the issue of customs in Northern Ireland, working on a solution that implies that checks on goods will have to take place outside the island of Ireland in some way that aligns with EU law, according to a diplomat in the room. Experts from the European Commission have been brought into discussions since Sunday to try to resolve the issue and Barnier said a “narrow path” to a deal is still open.
However, he added that only one day remains for the two sides to agree a new version of the text if a deal is to be signed off by leaders at the European Council summit on Thursday, the diplomats said.
“Even if the agreement will be difficult, more and more difficult, to be frank, it is still possible this week,” Barnier told reporters as he arrived at Tuesday’s meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg to debrief them on the intensive Brexit talks launched at the end of last week.
“Obviously, any agreement must work for everyone, the whole of the United Kingdom, and the whole of the European Union … it is high time to turn good intention in a legal text,” he said.
Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn echoed Barnier’s more positive tone. “They will try to reach a deal by this evening, if not possible it’s likely there will be another summit. There is some optimism,” he said.
U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay made an unexpected visit to the meeting in Luxembourg. “The talks are ongoing. We need to give them space to proceed. But detailed conversations are under way and a deal is still very possible,” he said.
One EU diplomat said it’s possible there will be a new legal text Wednesday when EU27 ambassadors will meet to scrutinize it ahead of the gathering of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. This text must provide a feasible solution for the key problem of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the diplomats say.
The new talks started to show signs of progress last Thursday after a meeting between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar, leading Barnier to announce Friday the resumption of serious talks.
However, ministers arriving at the General Affairs Council were skeptical.
“We always have shown a great deal of flexibility, but that hasn’t led to the necessary changes in London unfortunately,” said German EU Minister Michael Roth. “I won’t bet any money on a Brexit happening this week, but I will wait for Mr. Barnier’s presentation,” said Malta’s EU Minister Edward Zammit Lewis.
The two sides are exchanging draft texts, said another EU diplomat, but Brexit officials say they have not been informed of any new text presented by London. Another diplomat said the U.K. is expected to come back with a new draft for discussion Tuesday, though diplomats caution that a breakthrough doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
In light of skepticism that a deal can be agreed in time, discussions are also focused on possible extensions to negotiations. Amélie de Montchalin, the French EU Minister, repeated the French position that “if a major political change was to intervene in the U.K, that could be the justification for an extension discussion if that was asked. A major political change would be new elections, a referendum, something that would change the political dynamic.”
Diplomats say an extension seems very hard to avoid as some think it will take at least a month to reach a deal. Much depends on how close the agreed solution is to the original EU plan, put forward in February 2018. Under that proposal, Northern Ireland would effectively stay in the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit as part of a “backstop” provision for the Irish border, a mechanism designed to ensure that there is never a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever happens in future trade talks.
The latest discussions were triggered after the U.K agreed to restart talks using the February 2018 proposal as a starting point. The closer the final agreement is to that solution, the quicker it would be for the EU to reach a deal, one of the diplomats said.
Barnier told ministers there are now three possible scenarios: deadlock, further negotiations or an agreement on a legal text by Tuesday evening, something that he described as difficult but possible, said the diplomat in the room.
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