LONDON/BRUSSELS: A deal to smooth Britain’s departure from the European Union hung in the balance on Monday after diplomats indicated the bloc wanted more concessions from Prime Minister Boris Johnson and said a full agreement was unlikely this week.
As the Brexit maelstrom spins ever faster, Johnson and EU leaders face a tumultuous week of reckoning that could decide whether the divorce is orderly, acrimonious or delayed yet again.
Johnson says he wants to strike an exit deal at an EU summit on Thursday and Friday to allow an orderly departure on October 31. But if an agreement is not possible he will lead the United Kingdom out of the club it joined in 1973 without a deal – even though parliament has passed a law saying he cannot do so.
EU politicians such as Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said a deal was possible and that much more work was needed. But EU diplomats were pessimistic about the chances of Johnson’s hybrid customs proposal for the Irish border riddle.
“We are not very optimistic,” a senior EU diplomat told Reuters.
After more than three years of Brexit crisis and tortuous negotiations that have claimed the scalps of two British prime ministers, Johnson will have to ratify any last-minute deal in parliament, which will sit in an extraordinary session on Saturday for the first time since the 1982 Falklands War.
As EU ministers met in Luxembourg ahead of the leaders’ summit, Johnson’s planned legislative agenda was read out by Queen Elizabeth at the state opening of parliament.
“My government’s priority has always been to secure the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union on 31 October,” the queen said from the House of Lords.
If Johnson is unable to clinch a deal, an acrimonious divorce could follow that would divide the West, roil financial markets and test the cohesion of the United Kingdom.
The pound was down 1% at $1.2517.
The main sticking point remains the border between EU member Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland over how to prevent it becoming a backdoor into the EU after Brexit without erecting controls that could undermine the 1998 peace agreement that largely ended three decades of sectarian violence.