Brexit talks inch closer to deal

BRUSSELS — The European Union and Britain inched ever closer to a Brexit deal, with the leaders of France and Germany saying they expected an agreement could be sealed at Thursday’s EU summit.

Positive vibes radiated from French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a joint news conference Wednesday in Toulouse, France, where Merkel said that negotiations were “in the final stretch.”

Macron added that “I want to believe that a deal is being finalized and that we can approve it” today, when EU leaders are due to meet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Brussels.

Differences between the two sides remained but were narrowing to some technical and complicated customs and value-added tax issues, officials said. Negotiating teams were working into the night at EU headquarters to solve them.

“Good progress, and work is ongoing,” EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told reporters Wednesday evening.

Johnson, meanwhile, likened Brexit to climbing Mount Everest, saying the summit was in sight, though still shrouded in cloud.

And the EU Parliament’s chief Brexit official, Guy Verhofstadt, said Johnson had already moved mountains over the past days, seeking compromise where once he had been unbending.

“Before, the proposals of Mr. Johnson were absolutely unacceptable,” Verhofstadt said. “There has been a fundamental shift, that is clear.”

But Brexit negotiations have been here before — seemingly closing in on a deal that is dashed at the last moment. But with Britain’s Oct. 31 departure date looming and just hours to go before the EU leaders’ summit, hopes were increasingly turning toward getting a broad political commitment, with the full legal details to be hammered out later. That could mean another EU summit on Brexit before the end of the month.

Negotiators were locked inside EU headquarters with few details leaking out.

The focus of recent talks has been the thorniest component of a deal: how goods and people will flow across the land border between EU member Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K.

So far, all plans to keep an open and near-invisible border between the two have hit a brick wall of opposition from Johnson’s key Northern Irish ally, the Democratic Unionist Party. Leaders from the party met several times with the British prime minister Wednesday as he tried to win their support. Without it, any Brexit deal is likely to be rejected by Britain’s Parliament — which has already voted down prospective deals three times.


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