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World & Nation

Brexit talks close in on tentative deal before summit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is eager to strike a deal at an EU summit starting Oct. 17 that would allow for the U.K. to leave the bloc in good order on the scheduled date of Oct. 31.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is eager to strike a Brexit deal at the European Union summit starting Thursday.
(Associated Press)

The European Union and Britain inched ever closer to a tentative Brexit agreement on Wednesday, with the leaders of France and Germany saying they expected a deal could be sealed at the upcoming EU summit.

Positive vibes oozed from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint news conference in Toulouse, France.

Merkel said, “We are in the final stretch,” while Macron said, “I want to believe that a deal is being finalized and that we can approve it” on Thursday, when EU leaders are due to meet with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels.

Johnson, meanwhile, likened Brexit to climbing Mount Everest, saying the top was in sight, though still shrouded in cloud.

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With just hours to go before the EU summit, hopes were increasingly turning toward getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details hammered out later. Negotiators were locked in EU headquarters in Brussels with few details leaking out. Wild movements in the British pound’s value against other currencies on Wednesday underscored the uncertainty over what might be decided.

Additional meetings between EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and key EU legislators as well as with ambassadors of the member nations were scheduled for the evening — an indication there was still momentum in the ongoing talks among technical teams from both sides.

“It looks like things are moving,” said an EU official who was not authorized to speak publicly about the talks and requested anonymity.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, echoed that, saying there is still “a chance of securing a good deal” at the summit, even though a number of issues remain.

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The thorniest among them is how goods and people will flow across the land border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.

So far all plans to keep an open border have hit a brick wall of opposition from Johnson’s key Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. DUP leaders met several times with the British leader Wednesday as he tried to win their support. Without it, any Brexit deal is likely to be rejected by Britain’s Parliament.

Johnson told Conservative Party lawmakers on Wednesday that he believed a deal was close.

Legislator Bim Afolami quoted Johnson as saying, “The summit is in sight, but it is shrouded in cloud. But we can get there.”

Northern Ireland is not the only issue. An eventual withdrawal agreement would be a legal treaty laying out the terms of Britain’s departure and setting up a transition period in which relations would remain as they are now at least until the end of 2020, to give people and businesses time to adjust to new rules. It will guarantee the rights of EU citizens in Britain, and British nationals living elsewhere in the EU, to continue with their lives with minimal disruption.

But it leaves many questions about the future unanswered, and Britain’s departure is sure to be followed by years of negotiations on trade and other issues.

Even if a provisional deal is inked this week, moves in the British Parliament could still mean another delay to Britain’s departure, currently due to take place on Oct. 31. It also raises the prospect of another EU Brexit summit before the end of the month.

“The 31st of October is still a few weeks away, and there is a possibility of another summit before that if we need one,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said in Dublin.

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Any deal must be approved by the British Parliament, which has already rejected agreements three times and has also issued an order that Johnson’s government must seek to delay the departure if a deal isn’t in place by Saturday.

The British government continues to insist the U.K. will leave on Oct. 31 — but also promises to obey Parliament’s order.

EU leaders are seeking reassurances from Johnson during this week’s summit that he has the political weight to push any new deal through the House of Commons, which is due to meet on Saturday for its first weekend session in almost 40 years.

Since the weekend, Brexit negotiators have been locked in long sessions on how to deal with customs, tax and regulatory issues under British proposals to keep goods and people flowing freely across the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“Talks have been constructive, but there still remains a number of significant issues to resolve,” EU Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos said after being briefed by EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Johnson is eager to strike a deal at Thursday’s summit that will let the U.K. leave the bloc in good order on Oct. 31, fulfilling his promise to get Brexit done. But he has also vowed to leave the bloc, deal or no deal.

U.K. lawmakers, however, are determined to push for another Brexit delay rather than risk a chaotic no-deal Brexit that economists say could hurt the economies of both the U.K. and the EU

Beyond the questions of disrupting to daily life, an open Irish border underpins both the local economy and the 1998 peace accord that ended decades of Catholic-Protestant violence in Northern Ireland. But once Britain exits, that border will turn into an external EU frontier that the bloc wants to keep secure.

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