Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator has revived hopes of a new withdrawal deal between the EU27 and the UK being struck this week but warned it has become “more and more difficult” as the clock ticks towards a crucial summit of the bloc’s leaders starting on Thursday.
Michel Barnier said on Tuesday that it was “high time to turn good intentions [into] a legal text” after an “intense” few days of talks with the UK about a possible last-ditch accord before the October 31 deadline for Britain to leave the bloc.
Positive talks last week between the British prime minister Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar, his Irish counterpart, raised hopes of an agreement ahead of October 31, the date London has pledged to quit the EU whether there is a deal or not. But EU27 diplomats have warned privately that there are still big obstacles to overcome, particularly over customs arrangements in Northern Ireland.
“Even if an agreement will be difficult — more and more difficult to be frank — it’s still possible this week,” Mr Barnier told reporters in Luxembourg, ahead of a debrief of EU27 member state ministers on progress on the possible deal. “Reaching an agreement is still possible. Obviously any agreement must work for everyone — all of the United Kingdom and the whole of the European Union.”
Mr Barnier was more hopeful than Antti Rinne, prime minister of Finland, which holds the EU’s rotating presidency. On Monday, Mr Rinne cast doubt on the prospects of deal this week and said talks needed “more time”.
EU diplomats confirmed on Tuesday that the UK had submitted new proposals overnight to try to allay the EU’s fears about customs fraud — a major sticking point in the talks.
But Mr Barnier told ministers in Luxembourg that the plans lacked detail and were not written as legal text.
According to participants at the Luxembourg meeting, Mr Barnier said that there had been no breakthrough in the talks but that intensive negotiations would continue.
“There is nothing from the UK that brings progress so far”, said one EU diplomat.
Diplomats said they have been told another summit before the month’s end is likely to be needed to prepare for another extension to the UK’s departure date, which was originally scheduled for March this year.
EU foreign and Europe ministers arriving at the Luxembourg meeting warned that they needed to see more commitments from the UK if a deal were to be done.
Amélie de Montchalin, France’s Europe minister, said the accord needed guarantees including that the UK would maintain a “level playing field” with the EU27 on regulation — a provision Mr Johnson wants to junk from the Brexit plan agreed by Theresa May, his predecessor.
“We are firm on our principles which are guarantee the peace in Ireland, make sure the single market is protected, and that the future relationship will be a balanced one,” Ms de Montchalin said. “We must be extremely responsible, very calm, we cannot fall into a sort of generalised panic because the deadlines are looming.”
Stef Blok, the Dutch foreign minister, said it was “extremely important that there will be no unfair competition from countries outside the EU using the Irish border”.
“Of course the UK government has [proposed] some steps — but not enough to guarantee the integrity of the common market,” he said. “We hope the remaining steps will be set in the coming hours or days.”
EU diplomats have said the UK proposals are complex and include a provision for Northern Ireland to become a dual customs zone, applying both EU and UK rules.
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