EU’s Barnier hopes Brexit deal possible in ‘coming weeks’

Britain is set to leave the European Union in March, but a Brexit agreement must be sealed in coming weeks to leave enough time for relevant parliaments to ratify it.

EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier arrives for a meeting with European Council President Donald Tusk at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2018. (Olivier Hoslet, Pool Photo via AP)

The European Union and Britain are seeking to get their divorce negotiations back on track at Wednesday’s Brexit summit after botched weekend talks pushed back expectations of a deal into November at the earliest.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Tuesday that negotiators are working towards ensuring Britain leaves the EU next March in an orderly fashion and to secure a comprehensive deal “in the coming weeks.”

Barnier’s time-horizon has shifted after talks hit an impasse on Sunday, dashing hopes of a breakthrough at this week’s two-day summit of the EU’s 28 leaders, including Britain’s Theresa May, in Brussels.

Speaking on the eve of the summit, Barnier said several issues still needed to be dealt with, including the future of the border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Many aspects of the divorce have already been agreed, such as what Britain owes the EU, but other aspects relating to the future relationship have still to be resolved, notably relating to the border on the island of Ireland.

“We are not there yet,” he said. “We will use that time, calmly, with serious intent to find the overall deal in the coming weeks.”

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Barnier’s comments have more or less put paid to any prospect of a decisive moment at this week’s summit. Since the Brexit discussions began over 18 months ago, this October’s summit had been earmarked as the most likely date for any agreement given the need to get necessary parliamentary approvals before Britain officially leaves the EU next March.

While hoping for a deal, the EU insisted Tuesday it is pressing forward with contingency plans to protect the 27 member states if Britain crashes out of the bloc on March 29 without a deal and without a transition period to the future relationship of the two sides. European Council president Donald Tusk has warned that the chances of Britain crashing out without a deal are higher than ever before.

Germany was exhorting British Prime Minister Theresa May to come to Wednesday’s summit with a positive message that could kick-start the stalled talks again.

“Take responsibility and be constructive,” said Germany’s Europe Minister Michael Roth when he arrived for talks with Barnier in Luxembourg.

In London, May urged her divided Cabinet to back her amid growing talk that several members are ready to resign in protest at her plans.

During a three-hour Cabinet meeting Tuesday, May said the government must “stand together and stand firm.”

The EU is waiting for new proposals from Britain. But May’s room for compromise is restricted by divisions within her Conservative Party, and by her reliance on Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes any compromise on the border.

Several senior ministers, including Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, met privately over pizza on Monday evening and emerged professing support for the prime minister.

International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt said “no one is planning on resigning. We are all doing our jobs and we are trying to get the best deal for this country, and that’s it.”

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Lawless reported from London. Lorne Cook contributed from Brussels

Raf Casert And Jill Lawless, The Associated Press

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