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15 October 2018

POLITICO: Close but no deal: UK, EU scramble to salvage Brexit talks

After a chaotic weekend of intense negotiations, London and Brussels fell short of a Brexit deal but emerged seeing eye-to-eye on a crucial point: It’s time to bring in the big shots.

“It was never assumed [a] deal was going to be done today,” a U.K. official familiar with the hour-to-hour progress of Sunday’s intense talks said. “It was just the time to move technical negotiations on a political level.”

A diplomat from one of the 27 EU nations negotiating with Britain offered a strikingly similar assessment, saying that, “It’s now time for politicians to step in and take over.”

British and EU officials have long predicted that U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, possibly with other European leaders, would have to get directly involved in the negotiations before a final deal is clinched — just as they intervened personally last December to secure “sufficient progress” in the first stage of the divorce talks.

That moment appears to have arrived.

May has an open invitation to meet her counterparts who are planning to discuss Brexit at an EU27 leaders’ summit dinner on Wednesday. Downing Street officials on Sunday evening were not able to confirm whether the prime minister would attend.

Technical agreement, then trouble

In Brussels, at least, many had hoped that a tentative deal would be on the table even before the first hors d’oeuvre — a hope that was jarringly dispelled on Sunday, when the EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, announced Sunday evening that talks had hit a wall. His announcement followed an unscheduled face-to-face meeting in Brussels with the British counterpart, Dominic Raab, at which the Brexit secretary raised U.K. objections to a deal that three EU diplomats and one U.K. official said had been agreed tentatively at technical level.

The main sticking point remains the same as it has been for months — a standoff over how to construct a so-called “backstop,” a legal guarantee to prevent the need for a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, if the U.K. and EU fail to agree on a future trade relationship.

Reaching a deal on the border issue will require one side — or both — to redraw longstanding redlines in the negotiations, something that Barnier and Raab were clearly not empowered to do on Sunday. For Raab, a phone call with May could suffice. For Barnier, it is more complicated, requiring authorization from the EU27 heads of state and government. Diplomats were on duty throughout the weekend, alert to the possibility of just such a request. It never came.

A hastily arranged meeting of EU diplomats on Sunday evening where officials hoped to hear Barnier outline the contours of a tentative accord instead took on the air of a crisis session, with talks seemingly at another impasse. According to officials in attendance, at least one EU country urged that the focus shift urgently to disaster preparedness, amid the increasing likelihood of a no-deal Brexit. [...]

Full article on POLITICO


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