European Union Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said on Wednesday an agreement with Britain could be “within reach” next week, calling for decisive progress in the talks in time for a summit of all 28 EU leaders.
Negotiators from both sides have been locked in talks this week to overcome differences on the biggest outstanding hurdle to a deal – how to keep the UK frontier with the Irish republic free of border checks after Britain leaves the EU in March.
Barnier told small business leaders that the talks were “continuing intensively this week, day and night, with the aim … of having a deal within reach, if we follow through to the end of this negotiations, on Oct. 17.”
Leaders of the 27 countries that will remain in the EU meet in Brussels on Oct. 17, a day before British Prime Minister Theresa May joins the summit.
Barnier reiterated that as much as 85 percent of a withdrawal agreement had already been agreed, boosting the pound on financial markets. Policing of the deal and agreeing rules on produce such as camembert cheese and Parma ham that is protected inside the EU against imitations from elsewhere needed more polishing, he added.
He also stressed the EU’s insistence that Britain must accept possible checks on goods moving between its mainland and its province of Northern Ireland, saying Brexit will trigger the need for customs, value-added tax and compliance checks with EU standards.
Barnier said customs forms could be completed in advance online and the “only visible systematic checks” would involve scanning bar codes on lorries or containers on ferries or in ports.
For industrial goods, he said it could be done by “market surveillance authorities” in company premises but he added that checks on animals and animal-derived products would still have to take place on the border.
“Our challenge is to make sure that these procedures are as easy as possible and not burdensome,” he said in his speech in the European Parliament, which ended with a standing ovation.
Barnier’s cautious optimism has also been reflected in London.
“I expect that we will succeed in obtaining (a deal) at the end of the day,” David Lidington, a cabinet minister and Prime Minister Theresa May’s de facto deputy, told ITV on Wednesday, later adding that he was “hopeful” but it could not be guaranteed.
However, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the small Northern Irish party that props up Theresa May’s government, has threatened to vote down the government’s budget next month if it crosses the party’s red lines on Brexit.
Writing in the Telegraph, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lawmaker Sammy Wilson said that his party, which holds the First Minister post in the Northern Ireland Assembly, would “not be bullied into propping up a soft-touch Government which gives in to the EU’s demands.”
Wilson said reports of a Brexit deal involving either the UK staying within the customs union for an unspecified time-limited period or an arrangement that excluded Northern Ireland from any trade arrangements that the UK made with other countries in the future would be unacceptable.
He also said that the party would oppose the government if the deal involved EU regulations being applied to goods and services produced in Northern Ireland and checks on movements of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“If the Government is putting these proposals into the public domain to test the water, our advice is to get its toe out quickly or it is going to get burnt,” Wilson wrote.
Barnier said he realised such checks were politically difficult but this was the consequence of Britons voting to leave the EU.
He also stuck to the EU’s rejection of London’s plan for a “regulatory framework for goods”, saying it would give Britain an unfair competitive advantage by allowing access to parts of the bloc’s single market without ensuring the country honours all of its conditions.
The 27 EU states will get an update on the negotiations at a meeting of national ambassadors, without Britain, on Friday evening. The sides will continue negotiations through the weekend with hopes for a breakthrough as early as Monday.
The 27 EU leaders meeting next Wednesday in Brussels want to be able to announce “decisive progress” on the Brexit deal that allows them to hold another summit in November. to finalise a political declaration on close future ties with Britain.