EU, Britain Scramble to Reach Brexit Deal before Summit
British and EU negotiators on Tuesday scrambled to put together a draft text for a Brexit deal with just two days to go before a key European summit.
Both sides voiced cautious optimism that an outline agreement could be reached this week and the upbeat mood saw the pound rally on currency markets.
And European leaders warned that, while they are keen for a deal, time is tight and they will not let Britain use Northern Ireland as a back door to the single market.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said a text must be on the table by Wednesday morning if it is to be put before leaders at the EU summit starting Thursday -- in time for a special sitting of the British parliament on Saturday.
If this deadline is missed, talks could always resume next week and a special summit be held just in time for Prime Minister Boris Johnson to fulfill his pledge to lead Britain out on October 31.
But European diplomats said London must go further quickly if a deal is to be done this month, despite Johnson having given ground on customs rules for Northern Ireland.
As he arrived in Luxembourg to brief ministers from the other 27 EU states, Barnier struck a cautiously upbeat note.
"This work has been intense all along the weekend and yesterday because even if the agreement will be difficult -- more and more difficult to be frank -- it's still possible this week," he told reporters.
"Let me add also that it is high time to turn good intentions into legal text."
Emmanuel Macron apparently shares Barnier's guarded optimism. An aide to the French president told reporters there was "positive momentum" behind the talks.
Downing Street said Johnson had called Macron and had a "constructive" and "good discussion."
"We want to make progress towards securing a deal as soon as possible and we want to make progress ahead of the EU council on Thursday," a spokesman said.
But German Chancellor Angela Merkel outlined why EU officials are driving a hard bargain and hoping Britain will commit to a "level playing field" in post-Brexit trade and commerce.
"One thing is clear, Britain will develop into another competitor on the doorstep of Europe," she told industrialists. "And therefore the EU will be challenged to become more competitive and to assume geopolitical responsibility."
A European diplomat told AFP the "goal" was to get a draft text of a deal ready later in the evening Tuesday, but warned: "Time is running out."
Officials stressed that EU and UK negotiators would race to agree a draft text by Wednesday morning, but EU sources insisted there was no "hard deadline" and talks could go on next week.
- Glimmer of hope -
"The last moment is always a bit later than you think," one German government official told AFP, suggesting that Brexit day would have to be postponed beyond the end of the month if talks are to succeed.
"I am sنeptical that we will have a full agreement tomorrow on a legal text ... the question is whether the work can be done in the next few days or whether it will take another two months."
British Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay joined Barnier in Luxembourg in what was seen as a positive sign for the talks, and said "a deal is still very possible."
Barclay later tweeted a pictures of himself with Irish, Polish, Greek, Swedish and Portuguese counterparts, saying they shared his desire to "get Brexit done."
More than three years after Britain's 2016 referendum vote to leave, talks remain stuck on how to avoid customs checks on the border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
The EU has reservations about London's proposed customs arrangements and the role for Northern Ireland's Stormont assembly in giving consent to the plans.
"Johnson has modified his original proposals to the effect that he has clearly stated that there will be no customs border on the Irish border," a European diplomat told AFP.
If no deal is reached by Saturday, Johnson will fall foul of a British law demanding he ask the EU to postpone Brexit for a third time rather than risk a potentially disastrous "no deal" departure.