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

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European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks with the media as he arrives for 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)
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier speaks with the media as he arrives for 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)

Luxembourg (AP) — A Brexit divorce deal is still possible ahead of Thursday’s European Union summit but the British government needs to move ahead with more compromises to seal an agreement in the next few hours, the bloc said Tuesday.

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

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 that border invisible, for economic and peace treaty reasons. But once Britain leaves the bloc, that Irish border turns into an external EU border 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 to tell EU capitals what should be decided once the bloc’s two-day summit kicks off on Thursday.

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

To further boost the momentum, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called French President Emmanuel Macron to discuss where more movement could be found.

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and the EU summit this week was long considered one of the last possible chances to approve a divorce agreement to accommodate that deadline. Johnson insists his country will leave at the end of the month with or without a divorce deal, but British lawmakers have been adamant on avoiding a no-deal Brexit.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who had a long, intense talk with Barnier early Tuesday, said the EU believes “this 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 time-consuming specifications.

“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.

One EU diplomat said for things to work, technical negotiators would need to finish their text and make it available by 10 a.m. Wednesday so European governments have time to assess them.

EU ministers insisted it was time for Johnson to make the next move — and he seemed to be listening. Besides 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.

“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?”

Brexit negotiators, politicians and ordinary Europeans were all waiting for the answers to those questions.

Geir Moulson in Berlin and Sylvie Corbet in Paris contributed.