British negotiators were locked in last-minute talks with their European Union and Irish counterparts on Monday, trying to put together a Brexit deal that Prime Minister Theresa May might agree over lunch in Brussels. London has broadly agreed to many of the EU’s divorce terms, including paying out something like 50 billion euros. But the issues of the rights of expatriate citizens and the UK-EU border on the island of Ireland remain fraught, diplomats said.
Brussels officials and diplomats sound moderately confident of a deal. But they caution that much will depend on the outcome of May’s talks as to whether the EU will agree that sufficient progress has been made on the divorce issues to let them agree at a summit next week to open talks on a future trade deal.
Elmar Brok, a member of the European Parliament who met European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and his Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, shortly before they were to meet May at 1:15 p.m. (1215 GMT), said “just a few words” separated the sides and that there was a “very good chance” of agreement.
In London, May’s spokesman said: “Progress is being made. There’s more still to agree upon.”
Irish state broadcaster RTE said that a draft text would commit Britain to “continued regulatory alignment” with the EU to avoid divergence on the two sides of the Irish border.
In a sign of events moving fast, the man who will chair the crunch summit next week, European Council President Donald Tusk, cancelled a trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah and hastily scheduled his own meeting with May for later on Monday.
EU officials said Tusk scrapped his travel plans due to a “critical moment” in Brexit negotiations. He was standing by to discuss with EU leaders the preparations for trade talks. National envoys handling Brexit were also summoned urgently to a meeting in Brussels later on Monday, diplomats said.
Dublin, backed by the rest of the EU, is seeking strong assurances that London will commit to keeping business regulations in Northern Ireland the same as in the EU, to avoid a “hard border” that could disrupt peace on the island.
“Hopefully, we’ll find a way forward today,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told state broadcaster RTE ahead of a cabinet meeting to discuss the issue before May’s talks.
Coveney said the talks are in a “sensitive place”, with the British and Irish governments discussing possible texts of an agreement. Britain is seeking to keep its options open, having rejected a commitment to leave Northern Ireland in a customs union with the EU or to keep the whole United Kingdom in one.
May depends in parliament on a pro-British party in Northern Ireland that rejects any deal which would divide the province from the British mainland. Ireland and the EU say maintaining a customs union is the best way to avoid “regulatory divergence”.
Juncker and Barnier met the European Parliament’s Brexit team to brief them on progress. The legislature, which must approve any withdrawal treaty if a disruptive Brexit is to be avoided in March 2019, has demanded that EU courts have the final say in guaranteeing rights for 3 million EU citizens in Britain. Britain insists that it will no longer accept the supervision of the European Court of Justice.
Guy Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s Brexit coordinator, said after meeting Barnier and Juncker that he was still pressing for the rights of expatriates to be respected.