LONDON — Britain’s Brexit minister believes a divorce deal with the European Union could be struck by November 21, it emerged Wednesday, prompting EU leaders to warn this would require a breakthrough within days.
Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab made the optimistic comment in a letter to the House of Commons Brexit scrutiny committee, dated October 24 but only now made public.
"I would be happy to give evidence to the committee when a deal is finalised, and currently expect 21 November to be suitable," he wrote.
Both Raab and Oliver Robbins, Prime Minister Theresa May’s chief Brexit advisor, have been invited to address the committee on that date.
Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt echoed the optimism, telling an event in London: "It’s entirely possible that we could make enough progress by then."
However, May’s spokesman was more cautious, repeating only that "we wish to conclude the deal as quickly as possible".
Most of the divorce deal with Brussels is agreed but talks remain stuck on how to avoid new checks on Britain’s land border with EU member Ireland after it leaves the bloc’s single market and customs union.
Raab will visit the UK province of Northern Ireland on Friday on a "fact-finding trip", which will include meetings with local businesses and politicians, an official in his ministry said.
Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said that if a deal were to be struck this month, there must be major progress next week.
"We are at a moment of truth. If there is to be a breakthrough in November, then we need the negotiating teams to find a way forward in the next week or so," he said.
He was speaking in Paris after talks with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Le Drian added: "It is essential that we obtain guarantees from the United Kingdom" regarding plans to control the border.
EU leaders had mooted a special summit in mid-November to seal the Brexit deal, but warned earlier this month this would not happen without more progress.
Raab wrote: "The end is now firmly in sight and, while obstacles remain, it cannot be beyond us to navigate them."
A European source said on Wednesday however that "the technical discussions that resumed have not gone anywhere for the moment."
British officials are keen to avoid the negotiations dragging on, with Brexit day scheduled for March 29.
However, a statement for Raab’s Brexit ministry said: "There is no set date for negotiations to conclude."
Separately, Raab’s predecessor David Davis, who quit over the government’s approach to Brexit in July, said the final deal will likely pass when it comes to a vote in the House of Commons, before retracting himself a day later.
Davis is among a large minority of May’s Conservative MPs who strongly oppose her strategy, raising fears the deal will be rejected. — AFP