Pomp in London, talks in Brussels as Brexit deadline looms

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Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Charles, delivers the Queen's Speech at the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday Oct. 14, 2019. (Victoria Jones/Pool via AP)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II, with Prince Charles, delivers the Queen’s Speech at the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday Oct. 14, 2019. (Victoria Jones/Pool via AP)

London (AP) — Britain and the European Union said Monday that divorce talks were making slow progress, as the U.K. government tried to look beyond Brexit with a wide-ranging policy platform read by Queen Elizabeth II in a pomp-filled ceremony.

In terms of historical importance, the painstaking paragraph-by-paragraph talks at the EU’s glass-and-steel Berlaymont headquarters outweighed the regal ritual in which an ermine-draped monarch delivered a speech on the priorities of a Conservative government that could be out of office within weeks.

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II travels in a carriage to parliament for the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II travels in a carriage to parliament for the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday, Oct. 14, 2019. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

But the spectacle, complete with horse-drawn coaches, lords in scarlet robes and a diamond-studded crown, did provide a diversion from the long Brexit grind.

Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and an EU summit on Thursday or Friday is considered one of the last possible chances to approve a divorce agreement to accommodate that timeframe.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson insists the country will leave at the end of the month with or without a deal.

“My government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on the 31st of October,” the queen said in a speech to Parliament, written for her by the government.

It remains to be seen whether Johnson will achieve that goal.

Brexit negotiations have intensified over recent days after the British and Irish leaders said they could see a “pathway” to a deal. Technical teams from Britain and the EU worked through the weekend, but both sides said Monday that significant gaps remained between their positions.

Johnson’s spokesman, James Slack, said “the talks remain constructive but there is still a lot of work to do.”

Discussions centered on the difficult issue of the future border arrangements between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. Johnson has put forward a complex proposal to eliminate the need for customs checks, but EU officials say more work is needed.

An EU diplomat familiar with the talks said there would likely need to be a three-month extension to Brexit to turn the proposals into a legally binding deal.

“There are big problems remaining to counter smuggling and fraud because the British outlines are still that vague,” said the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the talks are ongoing. “There is momentum but there is still little movement.”

Arriving for a meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said “a deal is possible, and it is possible this month.  May be possible this week. But we are not there yet.”

In London, the queen delivered a speech outlining an ambitious — and critics say undeliverable — legislative program for Johnson’s government.

The 10-minute speech, read by the 93-year-old monarch from a gilded throne in the House of Lords, included more than 20 bills, including a law to implement an EU withdrawal agreement, should one be reached.

It also contained plans for post-Brexit reforms to agriculture, fishing and immigration that will include the ending of the automatic right of EU citizens to live and work in Britain in 2021. The speech also included a long list of domestic policies, from longer sentences for violent criminals to no-fault divorce, tougher air pollution rules and new building-safety rules.

The government’s critics called the speech a stunt, because Johnson’s Conservative administration lacks a majority in Parliament and an election looks likely within the next few months, whether or not Britain leaves the EU as scheduled on Oct. 31.

“The Queen’s Speech was an election broadcast for the Tory Party more than anything else,” tweeted Scottish National Party leader in Parliament Ian Blackford.

Guests in the House of Lords attend the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday Oct. 14, 2019. (Toby Melville/Pool via AP)
Guests in the House of Lords attend the official State Opening of Parliament in London, Monday Oct. 14, 2019. (Toby Melville/Pool via AP)

The speech was part of the State Opening of Parliament, a ceremony steeped in centuries-old symbolism of the power struggle between Parliament and the British monarchy. Lawmakers are summoned to listen to the queen by a security official named Black Rod — but only comply after slamming the House of Commons door in their face to symbolize the chamber’s independence from the monarch.

The state opening is usually an annual event, but amid the country’s Brexit chaos there has been no queen’s speech for more than two years — the longest gap for more than three centuries.

Lawmakers will hold several days of debate on the speech, culminating in a vote, which the government could well lose. That would heap even more pressure on Johnson’s embattled administration.

The speech forms part of the run-up to the summit of EU leaders, including Johnson, in Brussels Thursday and Friday to see whether a Brexit deal is possible before Oct. 31.

The challenge of maintaining an invisible border on the island of Ireland — something that underpins both the local economy and the region’s peace deal — has dominated Brexit discussions for three years since U.K. voters chose in 2016 to leave the EU.

Britain’s Parliament is due to hold a Saturday sitting this week, for the first time since the Falklands War of 1982, to decide on the next steps after the summit.

If a Brexit deal is reached, it still needs to be approved by both the British and European parliaments. Many British lawmakers — on both pro-Brexit and pro-EU sides of the debate — remain unconvinced.

Opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn said Sunday that his party was unlikely to support any deal agreed upon by Johnson.

Whether or not he secures a deal, Johnson is likely to face a move by parliament to hold a new referendum on whether to leave the bloc or remain. If there is no deal, lawmakers will try to ensure that the government seeks a delay to Brexit rather than crash out without an agreement on Oct. 31.

Casert reported from Luxembourg.