Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will warn Cabinet today that “major hurdles” still exist between the EU and Britain, amid fears in Brussels that the Brexit crisis may force officials to call an emergency EU summit next week.
The increasingly likely prospect of the Brexit drama failing to be resolved by this Thursday’s EU summit was raised as Tánaiste Simon Coveney told the Irish Examiner in an exclusive interview that “big gaps” remain between the two sides.
With just 48 hours to go before the crucial EU summit in Brussels on Thursday and Friday, which has long been flagged as the cut-off point for a Brexit deal, concerns are growing that time is running out to agree a deal.
Despite the heralded breakthrough talks between Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and British prime minister Boris Johnson last Thursday, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said further British concessions on the North are needed.
And while all sides publicly said they still believe a deal can be struck on the eve of the EU summit, several sources indicated an emergency summit next week is now on the cards.
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Coveney admitted there are still major disagreements between Britain and the EU over the future of the North which could potentially derail a last-minute Brexit deal.
The Tánaiste said the proposed Northern Ireland customs union remains the key stumbling block, and that while he still believes a deal can be struck this week, time is running out — with a possible emergency EU summit next week not ruled out.
“There are still clearly big gaps between the two sides,” he told the Irish Examiner.
So it’s really a question now of whether that pathway can be delivered through the technical negotiations and the legal text in a way that the UK can live with. The question is whether we can get it done in a relatively short period of time that we have available to us, between now and the end of the month.
Asked if it is possible to cut a deal by Thursday evening after three years of talks, Mr Coveney added: “I think the view of the EU is that we should stick to the timelines of this summit. This week is a key summit where the expectation is that they will be making decisions one way or the other on Brexit.”
Senior EU and Government sources mirrored thosee concerns last night, saying that while a deal at this week’s EU summit is still a possibility, it is increasingly likely an emergency summit will be needed next week to finalise any deal — potentially pushing back the October 31 Brexit deadline.
Speaking to this newspaper, a senior EU source said: “While we’re looking at ideas and we’re continuing technical talks, it’s important to say” the reality is a deal may not be finalised this week and that an emergency EU summit is “not an unreasonable take”.
The source said while “the technical talks” with Britain are continuing in the background, the “bottom line is that we have very little time until Thursday”.
Meanwhile, Government sources said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will tell Cabinet today that while “there is a pathway for a possible deal”, there are “still major hurdles to overcome and no one should underestimate the scale of the challenge”.
The situation emerged as Mr Coveney downplayed the prospect of a snap general election in November if there is a Brexit deal, saying: “I think people are getting ahead of ourselves” and that his only focus is on securing a deal “in the next 10 days”.
Mr Coveney separately hit out at a successful immigration tribunal appeal by the British government in a case involving Derry woman Emma DeSouza, after it was initially found people born in Northern Ireland are not automatically British.
“Citizenship and identity provisions are critical to the Good Friday Agreement,” said Mr Coveney.