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EU ministers say still time for Brexit deal as failure looms

(AFP) – Frustrated European ministers on Monday insisted there was still time to reach a Brexit deal despite the latest failed round of divorce talks, but the EU warned it was stepping up preparations for failure.

Meeting in Luxembourg, foreign ministers from the bloc s 28 members admitted that no agreement will be struck this week at an EU leaders  summit that had earlier been billed as the “moment of truth”.

EU Brexit pointman Michel Barnier met his British counterpart Dominic Raab in Brussels on Sunday, but they failed to agree to a draft Brexit divorce arrangement, as EU leaders prepare to arrive on Wednesday for the summit.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, whose country would suffer the biggest economic impact after the United Kingdom from a “no-deal” Brexit, said the latest stumble was “frustrating and disappointing”.

And in Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said the bloc s own “no deal” preparations were being stepped up.

“While we are working hard for a deal, our preparedness and contingency work is continuing and intensifying,” spokesman Margaritis Schinas said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May is facing a political high-wire act in trying to reach a deal that is acceptable to both the EU and lawmakers at home, where her minority government relies on the support of Northern Ireland s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).

Highlighting the challenges she faces, the DUP s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson on Monday warned it was “probably inevitable” Britain would leave the EU with no deal.

“Given the way in which the EU has behaved and the corner they ve put Theresa May into, there s no deal which I can see at present which will command a majority in the House of Commons,” he told the Belfast Newsletter.

But ministers in Luxembourg insisted there was still time to resolve the outstanding issues, including the dispute over rules for trade in and out of Northern Ireland, before a possible emergency summit in November.

“I think this is obviously a difficult period,” British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt told reporters as he arrived for a scheduled meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council.

“There was always going to be a moment like this, but we should remember that a huge amount of progress has been made. There are one or two very outstanding issues, but I think we can get there.”

Much will depend on the stance taken by the EU s two big power players France and Germany, with French President Emmanuel Macron insisting on a firm line in Brexit talks.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “time is now pressing hard” to reach a deal in time for it to be ratified before Britain s departure at the end of March.

But he said Berlin believes “it is still possible to reach an agreement… and we will do everything in our power to achieve this in the next few days”.

Spain s Josep Borrell said ministers were disappointed that a draft deal had not been possible over the weekend, but added: “We don t have to dramatise, we still have time. We still have one month.”

Linas Linkevicus, the Lithuanian foreign minister, told AFP that after Sunday s setback “it is difficult to be more optimistic”, but said both sides should redouble their efforts.

Sunday s talks ended without a breakthrough on the crucial issue of trade to and from Northern Ireland, which has emerged as a possible deal-breaker and even a threat to May s leadership.

London, Dublin and Brussels all say they want no checks imposed on the land border between EU member Ireland and British province Northern Ireland, but the problem persists of how to square that aim with Britain s decision to leave the European single market and the customs union.

Britain has proposed sticking with EU customs rules after Brexit as a fallback option to keep the border open, until a wider trade deal is agreed that avoids the need for frontier checks.

The EU s suggestion would see Northern Ireland remain aligned with Brussels  rules, thus varying from the rest of the United Kingdom — which is unacceptable to the DUP.

The British side suggested the talks broke down on Sunday because the EU negotiators were seeking further assurances on how to avoid checks on the land border.

A government source told AFP that the EU is now asking for a second backstop to be put in place, very similar to their earlier proposal involving just Northern Ireland, in case the British version is not ready in time.

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