Ireland's Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson say they can see a "pathway" to a Brexit deal, but EU diplomats warn the road ahead is long. -AFP
British and EU negotiators met Friday in a last-ditch bid to restart talks on an orderly Brexit, amid "promising signals" that a deal could still be possible just days before a key EU summit.
British minister Stephen Barclay and EU negotiator Michel Barnier met for two hours behind closed doors in the Brussels headquarters of the European Union, one day after talks between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar.
As they met, the president of the European Council and host of next week's Brussels summit Donald Tusk warned that Britain has yet to come forward with a "workable, realistic proposal" for a Brexit deal.
"A week ago I told Prime Minister Johnson that if there was no such proposal by today, I would announce publicly that there are no more chances, because of objective reasons, for a deal during the incoming European Council," he said.
"However, yesterday, when the Irish taoiseach and the UK prime minister met they both saw, for the first time, a pathway to a deal. I have received promising signals from the taoiseach that a deal is still possible," Tusk said, during a trip to Cyprus.
"Technical talks are taking place in Brussels as we speak. Of course, there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up. But even the slightest chance must be used," he warned.
The key sticking point in the Brexit negotiations is the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland, with time running out ahead of Britain's scheduled departure in barely three weeks. Barclay and Barnier made no immediate statements after their meeting.
But the Brussels breakfast came after a meeting in northwest England on Thursday, where Johnson and Varadkar said they had "agreed that they could see a pathway to a possible deal".
Speaking to reporters, Varadkar later said the meeting was "very positive", suggesting itwould be a "short pathway, rather than a long one". The European Council summit starts on October 17 next week and, in normal circumstances, European diplomats would want draft texts of any agreements to be prepared before close of business on Friday.
Even if, as UK officials hope, Brussels shows flexibility on the timeline, they have yet to enter the "diplomatic tunnel" of final text negotiations. After his "stock taking" breakfast with Barclay, Barnier will brief ambassadors from the other EU members on the state of play."Barnier will have to say whether we can or can't start negotiating a text," a European source told AFP.
"After that, it's a long road. It's wacky to think we'd have a treaty text before the October 17 and 18 summit." But Varadkar appears to be looking slightly further forward, implying that he and Johnson are now aiming for a deal in the next three weeks.
"I think it's possible for us to come to an agreement, to have a treaty agreed... by the end of October," he said.But he cautioned there could still be obstacles along the way, after a more than three-year game of high-stakes political snakes and ladders.
"There's many a slip between cup and lip," he warned.Johnson has vowed Britain will end its five-decade membership of the EU on October 31, with or without agreeing exit terms.
But he could be forced to seek a third delay to Brexit if he fails to agree a deal by October 19, thanks to a law passed by rebellious MPs.Some European sources in Brussels have suggested that EU leaders may offer Britain an extension even if Johnson does not ask for one.
Since the 2016 British referendum vote for Brexit, negotiations have bounced back and forth between London and Brussels.But Ireland has been a key player because of the issue of the UK's only land border, between its province of Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Johnson and Varadkar's talks "concentrated on the challenges of customs and consent", their joint statement said.
After British MPs rejected a "backstop" plan in a previous withdrawal agreement to keep the border open, Johnson presented a new proposal last week.
He proposes Northern Ireland stay aligned to the EU's single market but remain in a separate UK-wide customs territory, envisaging customs but no regulatory checks on the frontier.Northern Ireland's opt-in to the plan would be open to four-yearly review by the province's devolved assembly and executive.
But Brussels is adamant it will not agree to any plan that undermines the single market -- which allows free movement of goods across Europe -- or exacerbates tensions on the island of Ireland.
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