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Brexit Talks Grind On as Deadline Looms, but Hurdles Remain – The Wall Street Journal

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EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, who is locked in negotiations with U.K. officials, in Brussels.


Photo:

kenzo tribouillard/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

By

Laurence Norman in Brussels and

Max Colchester in London

Talks between the U.K. and European Union toward a draft Brexit agreement dragged on Wednesday, with British doubts about whether Parliament would approve a deal proving to be a significant obstacle.

Officials from both sides said British negotiators were concerned that concessions needed to satisfy the EU wouldn’t receive the necessary backing from U.K. lawmakers—particularly Prime Minister

Boris Johnson’s

political allies in the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland.

With about two weeks until the U.K.’s scheduled departure on Oct. 31, both sides are trying to negotiate a new deal to smooth the country’s exit from the bloc ahead of a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday.

The question of how to prevent a physical border from being rebuilt between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland has been the toughest issue to resolve. Negotiators have been discussing a plan that keeps Northern Ireland legally inside the U.K.’s customs territory, but that gives it a special status so that businesses can trade freely with the EU.

Some anti-EU lawmakers in Mr. Johnson’s Conservative Party would likely base their support for a deal on backing from the DUP, which opposes measures that would leave Northern Ireland effectively outside of the U.K. customs area. A deal negotiated by Mr. Johnson’s predecessor,

Theresa May,

failed three times in Parliament in part because of DUP opposition.

Michel Barnier,

the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, told a meeting of EU commissioners “significant issues” needed to be resolved but that talks had been constructive, commissioner

Dimitris Avramopoulos

told reporters.

In London,

Stephen Barclay,

the British Brexit minister, said, “What is essential is we reach agreement with the EU. Then the question is whether that is deliverable within the U.K. Parliament. That is the task on which we are focused.”

A succession of DUP and Conservative lawmakers visited Mr. Johnson’s offices at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday and Wednesday, ahead of a cabinet meeting Wednesday afternoon.

A person familiar with DUP thinking said, “There are gaps in the potential agreement that we cannot go with. Are they big or small, I can’t say. But they do divide us.”

The U.K.’s border with Ireland has been a major sticking point since Britain started negotiating its exit from the European Union. WSJ’s Jason Douglas traveled to the country’s only land frontier to understand why the issue is so divisive.

The DUP has focused on two issues: It has resisted the prospect of Northern Ireland being in a different customs area to the rest of the U.K. and has insisted that Northern Irish parties give consent to any arrangement concerning the region.

Sammy Wilson, the party’s Brexit spokesman, said Wednesday that any changes to Northern Ireland’s status would require the support of both unionist and Irish nationalist parties in Northern Ireland’s legislature to take effect.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has pledged to leave the EU on Oct. 31 without or without a deal.


Photo:

andy rain/Shutterstock

Mr. Barnier is due to meet with ambassadors from EU members Wednesday afternoon to say whether he will recommend that EU leaders sign off on an agreement when they meet in Brussels on Thursday and Friday. However, officials warned that talks, which ran until 1:30 a.m. local time on Wednesday morning, could continue through the day, potentially forcing Mr. Barnier to delay that decision until close to the summit.

The pound was down 0.3% against the dollar Wednesday, having surged more than 1% a day earlier on optimism about a deal.

If there is a deal this week, or if talks collapse, Parliament is expected to sit on Oct. 19 for only the fourth Saturday since the outbreak of World War II. European leaders would only formally back an accord if it passes the U.K. and EU parliaments.

The U.K. Parliament has passed a law requiring the government to ask for a three-month delay to Brexit if there isn’t an agreement by Oct. 31—though it isn’t clear how this will happen given Mr. Johnson’s insistence that the U.K. will leave at the end of October irrespective.

U.K. lawmakers will begin to scrutinize any deal, with some pro-EU lawmakers maneuvering to make an accord subject to another Brexit referendum. Plus, an extension beyond Oct. 31 may be needed even if an agreement is secured this month, to write the deal into a treaty and make it legally operational in both the EU and U.K.

—Jason Douglas contributed to this article.

Write to Laurence Norman at laurence.norman@wsj.com and Max Colchester at max.colchester@wsj.com

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