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Downing Street 'working hard' amidst reports of Michel Barnier's midnight deadline

The UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Michel Barnier met this morning.

Updated Oct 15th 2019, 3:35 PM

luxembourg-europe-brexit Michel Barnier and Simon Coveney greet each other at a meeting of EU General Affairs ministers. Source: Virginia Mayo

THE UK GOVERNMENT has until midnight to submit new proposals that would replace the backstop, in another last-ditch effort to secure a deal and avoid a crash-out Brexit. 

The European Union’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has warned that he needs good intentions to turn into a legal document after concerns were raised about an initial proposal that would keep Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory as well as the EU’s Customs Union.

This afternoon, reports emerged that Barnier called on the UK to present a legal text by the end of today. The European Council is meeting on Thursday and Friday.

Work to secure a deal has been intense after talks over the weekend, and which are understood to have gone on until 11pm on Monday, continue between EU and UK negotiators. 

Asked if he recognises the deadline, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We are working hard. The Prime Minister is aware of the time constraints that we are under.

We want to make progress towards securing a deal as soon as possible and we want to make progress ahead of the EU council on Thursday.

The British government rejected claims that a deal cannot be negotiated in time for a crucial EU summit, after the Finnish prime minister said “more time” is needed.

This morning, Barnier met with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay at the General Affairs Council. Tánaiste Simon Coveney and Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee also met with Barclay. 

Barnier debriefed EU27 ministers in Luxembourg before tweeting: “Talks are difficult but I believe an agreement is still possible.”

Speaking in Dublin, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said if a deal is agreed to “on Thursday and Friday, and if the House of Commons votes in favour of that agreement on Saturday”, then an extension might not be needed.

“But it’s too early to make that assessment at this stage,” he said.

Running out of road

Boris Johnson is in a race against the clock to secure a fresh agreement for the meeting of European leaders starting in Brussels on Thursday.

After meeting the European Council’s president-elect Charles Michel, Finland’s Antti Rinne said there was “no time” for the UK prime minister to achieve an agreement.

But housing secretary Robert Jenrick rejected the remarks, stressing a “great deal” of progress had been made and negotiators are working “very intensively”.

He told BBC’s Newsnight: “The EU is capable of moving extremely quickly if they wish to. Like any negotiation with the EU, and in fact with any major negotiation in life, everything happens at the last minute.

This was always going to be both complicated and come down to the final hours and days, so this doesn’t surprise me. We are going to work round the clock to try to secure it.

Rinne’s comments came as negotiators stepped up efforts to work out a way to break the deadlock over the Irish backstop.

“I think there is no time in a practical or legal way to find an agreement before the EU Council meeting. We need more time,” Rinne said during a Helsinki press conference, according to Reuters

Speaking to reporters in Brussels this morning, Barnier said the work has been “intense”.

He said even though it is getting “more and more difficult”, a deal is possible this week. 

“Obviously, any agreement must work for everyone, all of the United Kingdom and the whole of the European Union.”

Here in Ireland, the Taoiseach and Tanaiste will brief cabinet today on the state of play in Brexit, including last week’s meeting with Johnson.

Negotiations are continuing this week between the task force and the UK, but a source said that there are still major hurdles to overcome and “no one should underestimate the scale of the challenge to secure agreement and redraft a treaty in time for the European Council”.

‘We’re not there yet’

A Cabinet briefing on Brexit was understood to have been postponed by Johnson as negotiators continued talks to hammer out a new deal ahead of the 31 October deadline.

Today’s planned update to senior ministers was said to have been delayed until tomorrow so he can give more detailed information on efforts to strike a new agreement.

The prime minister has been under increasing pressure to concede greater ground to Brussels, with reports suggesting the UK has dropped a demand that a deal should include a veto for the Stormont Assembly on customs arrangements.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney raised some hopes by saying “a deal is possible”, maybe even this week, but stressed “we’re not there yet”.

In similar comments, Johnson told senior ministers there was “still a significant amount of work to get there” but a “pathway” to a deal was still visible.

Loophole

The two-day EU summit is crucial because the prime minister must get a new deal approved by MPs by Saturday if he is to avoid a clash over asking for a Brexit delay.

The Benn Act passed by MPs opposed to a no deal, including Tory rebels, says he must ask for an extension to Article 50 if MPs do not back a deal by then.

There are fears that a loophole could be used to avoid this, with Johnson repeatedly ruling out making the extension request under his “do or die” pledge to get Brexit done by the Halloween deadline.

Leader of the Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg has suggested the government could use European law to achieve no deal.

“Theresa May got an extension not through UK law but through EU law and, until the 1972 European Communities Act is repealed, EU law is superior law in the UK,” he said on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.

Labour has threatened court action to force the prime minister to obey the legislation.

Regardless of the outcome in Brussels, a showdown is anticipated in an emergency sitting of Parliament on Saturday – the first in 37 years – if MPs approve the unusual move.

They will be able to back or reject any deal presented to them, or there will be discussions on what to do next in the Brexit saga.

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