British and European negotiators on Sunday played down hopes of a rapid breakthrough in their last-ditch bid to strike an amicable Brexit divorce deal.
Intense talks continue in Brussels, but European diplomats say the two sides are still far apart on how to manage trade and customs on the island of Ireland.
And EU negotiators also want British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to promise to maintain a level playing field in business regulation after Brexit, in order to ease the path to a future free trade deal.
The last planned European Council summit before Britain is due to leave the bloc on October 31 opens on Thursday, and diplomats see little hope that there will be a treaty ready for them to sign.
“A lot of work remains to be done,” EU negotiator Michel Barnier told the bloc’s ambassadors. For once, a British spokesman in Brussels echoed him: “There is still a significant amount of work to be done. Technical-level talks will continue tomorrow.”
London and Brussels are trying to achieve in a few days what they had failed to do in the more than three years since Britons first voted to leave the European Union after nearly 50 years — agree the terms of Britain’s departure.
Ongoing technical talks are variously described as “intense” or “constructive”, but no-one familiar with the closed-door process would point to progress on issues like Northern Ireland’s place in or out of the EU customs zone.
“No breakthrough yet. But the good news is: Intensive discussions continue,” a European diplomat told AFP.
“Overall not an easy starting position and only a few days remain until the European Council. If the British government wants a solution, it must move quickly now. The clock is ticking.”
In London, Downing Street said Johnson had told his cabinet to brace for a cliff-hanger finish.
The British leader said “a pathway to a deal could be seen but that there is still a significant amount of work to get there and we must remain prepared to leave on October 31.”
Johnson rose to power in July on a promise not to extend Brexit for a third time this year — even for a few weeks.
Breaking that pledge could come back to haunt him in an early general election that most predict for the coming months.
But, thanks to a law passed by rebel British MPs, Johnson is also under parliamentary orders to seek a extension until January 31 of next year if no deal emerges by Saturday.
Johnson has promised to both follow the law and get Britain out by October 31 — a contradiction that might end up being settled in court.
Outgoing European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said British politics were getting more difficult to decipher than the riddle of an “Egyptian sphinx”.
“If the British ask for more time, which they probably will not, it would in my view be a historical nonsense to refuse them,” Juncker told Austria’s Kurier newspaper.
Pressure from parliament
Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar hinted on Thursday that he could support the talks running up to the October 31 deadline if a deal seemed within reach.
Britain will only avoid a chaotic breakup with its closest trading partners if the agreement is also passed by the UK parliament — something it has failed to do three times.
Johnson heads a minority government and must rely on the full backing of not only his own fractured Conservatives but also Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party.
DUP’s parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds warned Johnson that “Northern Ireland must remain entirely in the customs union of the United Kingdom” and not the EU.
“And Boris Johnson knows it very well,” Dodds told Italy’s La Repubblica newspaper.
The comments do not necessarily rule out DUP support.
UK media are presenting Johnson’s mooted compromise as a “double customs” plan that could be interpreted to mean that Northern Ireland is leaving EU rules.