'Not enough progress' yet to call November Brexit summit: EU source

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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Brussels , Belgium (AFP) Not enough progress has been made in Brexit divorce talks to call a November summit to draft a deal, a senior EU official said Wednesday.

After receiving a briefing from British premier Theresa May, EU leaders discussed Brexit over a summit dinner and agreed that “despite intensive negotiations, not enough progress has been achieved”, the official said.

They called for negotiations to continue but for now they are “not planning to organise an extraordinary summit on Brexit in November”, the source said.

May said Wednesday that “now is the time” to make a Brexit deal happen, but officials said she failed to offer new proposals to break the impasse at a crucial Brussels summit.

May pitched her vision of how to save the talks to European Union leaders left frustrated by a dramatic breakdown in negotiations on Sunday, just months before Brexit day on March 29.

Antonio Tajani, the president of the European Parliament who heard the speech, said May offered them “nothing substantially new” to discuss when they retired for dinner afterwards without her.

But he said she was “not against” the idea of accepting a one-year extension in the transition period after Brexit to take the heat out of the most contentious issue — the fate of the Irish border.

“I sense a political will to make headway,” he said.

Several leaders had already indicated they have no hopes of a breakthrough this week, with all eyes now on whether enough progress has been made to hold further talks in November.

Before the summit, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a stern warning that Europe must be prepared for a no-deal Brexit, while France has also stepped up its planning for the potentially catastrophic scenario.

But as she arrived in Brussels, Merkel pledged to “try everything to find an agreement”.

'Now is the time'

Negotiations are at an impasse over the issue of a legal “backstop” to keep open the border between British Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, an EU member, if and until a wider trade deal can be signed that avoids the need for frontier checks.

May faces a battle to find a solution that is acceptable to both the EU and hardline Brexit supporters in her own deeply-divided Conservative party, who could block the final deal in the House of Commons.

Arriving for the summit, she insisted that a deal is achievable and that “now is the time to make it happen”.

“I believe everybody around the table wants to get a deal. By working intensively and closely we can achieve that deal,” she told reporters.

Longer transition?

Neither side has shown much sign of flexibility, but diplomats say EU negotiator Michel Barnier is willing to add a year to the 21-month post Brexit transition period — taking it to the end of 2021.

Arriving for the talks, he said “we need time, we need much more time” for talks, vowing to work “calmly and patiently” for a deal in the coming weeks.

The idea of extending the transition would be to give more time to negotiate a deal on future relations and find a formula to defuse the Irish border question.

But a longer transition would not necessarily resolve the backstop issue, which must be included in the withdrawal treaty and ratified before the end of March to avoid the damaging “no deal” scenario.

The EU official also said May had told leaders that Britain was prepared to consider an extension.

Irish issue

Tusk has made it clear that if May and Barnier do not signal concrete progress towards a draft deal he will not call the planned November summit.

Instead, the matter could either be pushed back to December or — more dramatically — the EU could use the November weekend to meet on preparations for a “no-deal” Brexit.

To solve the Irish question, Britain has proposed staying temporarily aligned to the EU's customs rules, but the bloc wants this to have no end date — something her eurosceptic MPs will not accept.

May said the EU was also insisting on its own “backstop” in case the London proposal did not work, which would see Northern Ireland alone stay aligned with the bloc's customs union and single market.

She says this would threaten the integrity of the United Kingdom — and it is strongly opposed by her Northern Irish allies from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) who provide her with crucial support in parliament.

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