EU: Brexit deal still possible this week but UK must act now

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, right, shakes hands with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney during a meeting of EU General Affairs ministers, Article 50, at the European Convention Center in Luxembourg, Tuesday, Oct. 15, 2019. European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is in Luxembourg on Tuesday to brief ministers on the state of play for Brexit. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
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A Brexit divorce deal is still possible ahead of this week’s European Union summit, the bloc said Tuesday — but only if the British government makes more compromises to seal an agreement in the coming hours.

Even though many questions remain, diplomats made it clear that both sides were for the first time within touching distance since an earlier U.K. withdrawal plan fell apart in the British House of Commons in March.

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and this week’s EU leaders’ meeting — the last scheduled summit before the Brexit deadline — was long considered the last opportunity to approve a divorce agreement. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists his country will leave at the end of the month with or without an agreement, but British lawmakers are determined to avoid a no-deal Brexit.

EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said at a meeting of EU ministers that the main challenge now is to turn the new British proposals on the complex Irish border issue into something binding. EU member Ireland has a land border with the U.K.’s Northern Ireland, and both want to keep goods and people flowing freely across the currently invisible border.

A frictionless 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.

Barnier said it’s “high time to turn good intentions into a legal text.” He wants a clear answer by Wednesday morning, so EU capitals can prepare for the bloc’s two-day summit that begins Thursday.

“Even if an agreement will be difficult — more and more difficult, we think — it is still possible this week,” Barnier said.

The big question is how far Johnson’s government is prepared to budge on its insistence that the U.K., including Northern Ireland, must leave the European Union’s customs union — something that would require checks on goods passing between the Britain and the EU, including on the island of Ireland.

The government has given away little detail of the proposals it has made to the EU to remove that requirement.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, rejected suggestions Britain had only until the end of the day to firm up its proposals but said “the prime minister is aware of the time constraints that we are under.”

On Tuesday, Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron — one of the EU leaders most skeptical about Britain’s intentions — to discuss where elements of a compromise could be found. Slack called the conversation “constructive.”

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had a long, intense talk with Barnier early Tuesday, said the EU believes a deal “is difficult, but it is doable.” He said Barnier addressed EU ministers and “did point to progress in the last number of days where the gaps have been narrowed.”

A senior German official wouldn’t rule out a Brexit agreement in principle by Wednesday afternoon, but stressed the importance of the specifics — and how time consuming they will be to work out.

“The basis for our decisions are legal texts in which the details are settled,” the official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in line with department rules, said in Berlin. “But there has been progress, and as always in these negotiations the biggest progress happens over the final meters.”

Late Monday, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said the British proposals to keep the Irish border protected from smuggling and fraud once it leaves the bloc were insufficient.

“The U.K. proposal contained some steps forward but not enough to guarantee that the internal market will be protected,” Blok said.

EU ministers insisted it was Johnson’s turn to make the next move — and he seemed to be listening. In addition to the call with Macron, Johnson shifted Britain’s weekly Cabinet meeting from Tuesday to Wednesday, so he could give his ministers a better idea of Brexit progress.

If talks fail or stumble ahead of the EU summit, there could always be an extraordinary meeting just ahead of the Oct. 31 Brexit departure — or the Brexit deadline could be extended again. It has already been postponed twice.

“There will be progress tomorrow, the question is how big this progress will be,” the German official said. “Is this progress so great that work is still needed, but this work can be done in the next few days? Or is the progress such that two more months’ work is needed?”q