LONDON—The UK and the EU have agreed to hold “continuous” Brexit talks after a recent meeting between lead negotiators in Brussels failed to deliver a breakthrough.
Negotiations on the divorce deal resumed after a summer break on Aug. 21, with both sides signaling increased urgency to wrap up loose ends and avoid Britain crashing out of the EU with no deal.
“The negotiations are now entering the final stage,” said Michel Barnier, the lead negotiator for the EU side. “We have agreed that the EU and the UK will negotiate continuously from now on.”
Britain’s Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said, “We need to step up the intensity of the negotiations as we enter the final phase and we have agreed to meet regularly to resolve those outstanding issues.”
Despite some progress on post-Brexit security and defense arrangements between Britain and the EU, the problems of the Irish border and trade ties remained unresolved.
Raab conceded that “there are still gaps,” but followed it up with a hopeful note that if both sides adopt realistic expectations, he is “confident we can reach the agreement in October.”
Barnier was somewhat more cautious, saying that a deal could be struck “certainly not later than the beginning of November.”
Senior UK and EU officials gathered on Wednesday to continue talks, while Raab and Barnier plan to meet next week to assess progress.
Emergency Summit Likely
Brussels diplomats said that EU leaders will likely have to hold an emergency summit in November to give enough time to wrap up what is expected to be a lengthy ratification process before Britain becomes the first country ever to leave the EU in March 2019.
“There is definitely going to be a real push for October and we’ll probably not be able to quite get there. So, while it has not formally been confirmed as yet, an extra summit in November looks most likely,” said a senior EU diplomat.
Some diplomats warned the process could even slip into December, leaving little time for the legislative process to conclude before the Brexit deadline.
The Oct. 18-19 summit of all EU leaders has long been cast as the make-or-break moment for a Brexit deal, leaving enough time for the elaborate ratification process by EU member states and the European Parliament.
Key Sticking Points
But persistent disagreements, mostly over how to avoid border checks between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland, have now cast that into doubt.
London has fumed at a Brussels-proposed emergency plan under which Northern Ireland would effectively remain largely run by EU trade rules after Brexit, unless better ideas emerge.
Last week Latvian foreign minister Edgars Rinkevics put the chances of a final Brexit deal at 50-50.
British businesses have warned that leaving without a deal could cause mayhem for trade and travel, bringing higher food prices, logjams around UK ports, and disruption to everything from aviation to medical supplies.
The unity of the remaining 27 EU states in facing off with Britain has also started to show signs of wavering as the risk of a damaging “no-deal” Brexit rises.
Poland’s EU minister Konrad Szymanski told his peers in July the bloc may soon be forced to choose between Ireland and having any deal with Britain.
This marked a departure from the EU’s mantra of standing by Ireland, where both sides fear a return to border checks could revive decades of sectarian violence.
Britain is due to release this week a set of papers on the potential effects of a “no-deal” Brexit.