The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator began talks With British officials in Belgium Friday to work toward an agreement, with about a month remaining before the departure deadline.
Michel Barnier met with Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay in Brussels, who was adamant the Irish “backstop” be stripped from any deal. The backstop, effectively an assurance of a soft border between Ireland and Northern Ireland after Britain leaves, has been perhaps the chief obstacle in negotiations.
While Barclay said Britain is committed to finding a deal, he said there isn’t much time left.
“I think there is still a long way to go. I think we are coming to the moment of truth in these negotiations,” he said.
The deadline to leave the EU is Oct. 31, but a new British law prevents Prime Minister Boris Johnson from completing the withdrawal without a trade agreement, or Parliament’s approval to leave without one by Oct. 19.
Last week, EU negotiators said they are open to an alternative to the backstop — but Irish deputy Simon Coveney said Friday London hasn’t yet submitted a “serious” proposal.
“Until there is a serious proposal, which can be the basis of negotiations, then the gaps which are wide at the moment will remain,” he said.
He added that “time is running out” and “the onus is on the British prime minister and his team” to put serious proposals on the table.
Johnson’s office said Friday there are still “significant obstacles” to a deal.
“From an Irish perspective, we of course think that an extension is preferable to a no-deal,” Coveney said. “But I think there would have to be good reason behind that to ask for an extension.”
EU President Jean-Claude Juncker said he and Barnier are doing everything they can for a deal and if they fail, it’s Britain’s fault.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said he’s not optimistic about a deal, but urged British leaders to present a plan at a Brexit summit on Oct. 17.
“The withdrawal agreement is actually an international treaty,” he said. “It’s not the kind of thing that can be amended or cobbled together late at night.”