The European Union says talks with the U.K. to find an amicable divorce deal were back on track, despite huge challenges and a looming end-of-month deadline for the U.K. to leave the bloc.
EU Council President Donald Tusk said he has “received promising signals” from Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar that a Brexit deal is still possible, so he has extended a deadline to continue the Brexit talks.
Tusk, speaking in Nicosia, said that “for the first time,” Varadkar and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson saw a pathway toward a deal. He said that “even the slightest chance must be used” to get a deal.
Originally, Tusk said he was planning to pull the plug on talks Friday, but because of the breakthrough, he can now see talks going through the weekend, ahead of the EU’s two-day summit, which starts Thursday.
Tusk said “there is no guarantee of success and the time is practically up,” but insisted both sides should use every opportunity available ahead of Britain’s scheduled Oct. 31 departure date.
“A no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU,” Tusk said.
Highlighting the upbeat mood, Johnson’s Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, got a warm welcome from EU negotiator Michel Barnier before they started almost two hours of talks around breakfast.
After their meeting, Barnier said he had a “constructive meeting” with Barclay, and underscored the cautious optimism since Thursday’s meeting between Johnson and Varadkar.
Barnier was to brief EU ambassadors and key legislators later Friday.
“Brexit is like climbing a mountain. We need vigilance, determination and patience,” said the man who once organized the 1992 Winter Olympics in his region of France.
Johnson said late Thursday there was a “pathway” to a belated agreement to stave off a chaotic and costly no-deal Brexit on Oct. 31, while Varadkar said the meeting was “very positive.”
The main stumbling block remains how to handle the U.K.’s only land border with the EU, which is on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
The challenge of keeping this border invisible — something that has underpinned both the local economy and the region’s peace deal — has dominated Brexit discussions for three years, ever since the U.K. voted in 2016 to leave the EU.
Tusk insisted “even the slightest chance must be used” to avoid an acrimonious split since both the EU and the U.K. would be hit hard economically.
One way to do that could be to extend the Oct. 31 deadline so negotiators have more time to work things out in legally binding detail. But Johnson has insisted that Britain is leaving on Oct. 31 “do or die” — with or without a divorce deal.
France has also long said deadlines cannot be extended forever, since Britain was originally slated to leave the bloc on March 31.
In Paris, France’s European affairs minister, Amelie de Montchalin, had another take on the debate, saying a no-deal Brexit “is probable, at this stage.”
De Montchalin told France Inter radio she does not see an obvious reason to grant a further extension to the U.K.
“I have a fundamental question: why give more time. If it is time for the sake of time? It has taken one year, even three years, and we don’t really get it,” she said.